By: Jarret Romanello, The St. Lucie Post
July 2, 2021
On her first day as Chief of Police of the Fort Pierce Police Department, Diane Hobley-Burney ended with a walk down the streets of Lincoln Park. The message was clear – If she could walk the streets of Fort Pierce alone – she could make them safer.
Six years later, crime in the Sunrise City is down 36% after the Chief rebuilt the department by listening to resident’s concerns. “The voice of the people is in the foundation of this department,” Chief Hobley-Burney said.
Born and raised in Tampa, Hobley-Burney never dreamed of leaving the Bay Area for the Treasure Coast. But her emphasis on community and youth relations would lead her from being the highest-ranking female African American Police Officer in Tampa to the first female African American Police Chief in Fort Pierce.
In 2015, Hobley-Burney commanded a district in Tampa slightly larger than the city of Fort Pierce and built positive relationships with the community through programs and initiatives designed to help people.
One of the programs – We Must Reach You to Teach You, caught the eye of St. Lucie County students, and they asked her to present it in Fort Pierce.
The program was a success, and the Fort Pierce Police officers that participated told her the city was looking for a new Chief and urged her to apply. “I was extremely happy in my job and never thought of leaving Tampa,” Hobley-Burney said.
When a Fort Pierce Police Officer traveled to Tampa to plead that Hobley-Burney considers applying, she agreed to a three-day exploratory visit. During her visit, Hobley-Burney viewed the town and met residents. By the third day, she says, “God touched my heart, and I knew Fort Pierce was where I need to be.”
Before being sworn in, a resident begged Hobley-Burney to clean up the city. With a high crime rate and an alarming number of shootings and murders, the resident feared having a child’s birthday party at their house. “(The resident) was afraid the kids would get shot in the front yard,” Hobley-Burney remembers.
In 2016, Fort Pierce Police Department reported 1,859 Part 1 Uniform Crime Report (UCR) crimes occurred in the city. Part 1 UCR crimes include murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft.
With high crime, the relationship between the community and the police department became strained. “The community felt there was a divide. There was the police department and them,” Chief Hobley-Burney said.
To reduce crime and improve relations, Chief Hobley-Burney restructured the department. Police Officers left the building and began holding roll calls on the streets of problematic areas, and undercover officers started working seven days a week. “I made a promise to the people. We are going to change some things and make this city safe.”
Even the Police Station got a makeover. The police lobby has calming blue colors, new furniture, and a children’s play area. “We want to make people feel at home and create an inviting atmosphere when you walk in,” the Chief said. Fort Pierce Highwaymen paintings hang in the conference room and community engagement photos in the lobby.
Understanding some residents are reluctant to talk to the police, the Chief uses The Police Community Advisory Committee as an additional way to connect with the people. “Residents can address concerns to the Police Community Advisory Committee and know the police department will address them,” Chief Hobley-Burney said.
To create a safe haven for those in need of services, Chief Hobley-Burney created the RICH (Resources in Community Hope) House to address the needs of youth, their parents, and seniors.
Located at 2304 Avenue I in Fort Pierce, RICH House serves as a place where community members can get the tools they need to succeed in life. “We are teaching these kids the skills they need for a wonderful future because they are our future,” Chief Hobley-Burney says.
Parents who have difficulty understanding their kids’ homework can learn the skills needed to help their children and even study for their GED. Seniors can learn how to use technology to connect to much-needed resources. “This is God’s work that brought me here,” Chief Hobley-Burney says.
To enhance efficiency, every three years, the Fort Pierce Police Department undergoes an in-depth review of every aspect of the agency’s organization, management, operations, and administration by the Florida Commission on Accreditation. In June 2021, the agency received reaccreditation.
In 2020, the Fort Pierce Police Department reported 1189 Part 1 UCR Crimes, a 36% decrease in crime since Chief Hobley-Burney started. The Chief credits her officers, “Our officers are doing quality work, and I am honored to be their Chief.”
Six years after her walk down the streets of Lincoln Park, crime in the city is down, and community relations have improved. “We are doing this together. We are working together,” Chief Hobley-Burney says. Through community partnerships and department restructuring, the City of Fort Pierce is a safer place than it was six years ago. “The divide between the community and police department, if it still exists, is becoming less and less,” Chief Hobley-Burney said.
Hobley-Burney hopes to continue to impact all through her work, “I am not only the Chief of Police of the Fort Pierce Police Department, “I am the Chief of the City of Fort Pierce and every resident here, I am here for everyone,” Chief Hobley-Burney said.