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Joe Henderson Columns

Police work to overcome mistrust at Central Court Apartments

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 10:37 PM
TAMPA -

It was quiet, for a change, at Central Court Apartments as Sgt. Kenny Norris of the Tampa Police Department pulled into a parking space and got out of his cruiser.

"Let's take a look around," he said, but he wasn't looking for trouble. He was trying to help. We walked through something that was supposed to be a courtyard, except there was no grass — only a scrubby patch of dirt. A couple of kids, maybe 6 or 7 years old, shot basketballs at a goal with no net.

"Look at them," Norris said of the kids. "That's what it's about, right there."

The complex is where officers shot and killed 16-year-old Javon Neal on July 22 after, they said, he pulled out a pump-action shotgun while running from them. The shooting came at the end of the 210th call for police help this year at Central Court.

Several women sat outside as the summer's heat built in the late morning. They watched the kids and they chatted. As Norris approached dressed in his uniform, they grew quiet. Their suspicion was evident.

Norris, 47, is a decorated officer with 24 years on the force. He smiled when I told him he looked like he had played a little ball during his day. He was a linebacker at Auburndale High and did a tour in the Army. He looks like he can still play.

As he approached the group, his demeanor was a sharp contrast to the suspicion he met. Norris was friendly and engaging. He talked to them about goals. He listened to their complaints.

"You have to have a plan to get out of here," he said. "You have to write it down. It can't be just a dream. It has to be a goal. This should be a temporary stop in life."

The residents seemed to agree. But getting out of a Section 8 complex like this isn't easy, especially when many of the residents are single mothers with several kids.

His visit is one way police hope they can break down the walls of mistrust and resentment many residents feel toward the officers.

It isn't easy. The New Black Panther Party has said it wants police to stay away from the area north of Ybor City on 22nd Street. The Panthers say they can handle anything that comes up better than the police.

"All the police is not against us, but a lot of them are," said a resident who refused to give her name. "They call us names. They don't treat us fair. They cuss you, call you H's and B's. They violate our rights. They just need to take the police that come here and send them somewhere else. Send us new ones."

Norris, hearing this, said quietly, "We have a lot of work to do."

Considering how many times police have responded to calls from the complex, someone must believe the officers can help. However, it's also true that the shooting of Neal triggered protests and outrage from residents, some of whom said the police didn't need to use extreme force.

"We're asking the wrong questions," Norris said. "No. 1, what is a 16-year-old doing with a shotgun? And we have homicides that no one has paid any attention to because it's a black-on-black crime. Are we saying it's OK if a black guy dies as long as another black guy did it, but it's different if police are involved?

"That's how I approach the situation to start. People have to start looking in the mirror. What goes on here happens every day. Black-on-black crime is where we have to start. I have put my life on the line for this community and will again, just like every other officer, but at the end of the day I want to go home, too."

Police say 13 homicides took place last year in District 3, which covers the area around Central Court. Seven of those were considered black-on-black crimes.

It never stops. There have been 17 calls to Central Court since the night Neal was shot for complaints such as drug sales, trespassing and fights.

"This has always plagued the black community," Norris said. "It may be corny, but we have to try to turn this around one life at a time."

He was interrupted by a phone call. Someone was calling to say thank you for the encouragement Norris had given him. Instead of giving up, the young man said he just landed a job.

One life at a time.

There is so much to overcome, though. Take the attitude on crime, for instance.

"One of the things I say to groups is we have about 340,000 residents in the city of Tampa and approximately 1,000 officers," Police Chief Jane Castor said. "We need the public to help us eradicate crime, and we're trying to bridge those gaps and work with the community to make it safer. We have to break that cycle that goes from generation to generation.

"But the majority of it is a culture of peer pressure. It's a culture that says nobody talks to the police, no matter what."

I asked Central Court resident Brittany Tims whether there are too many guns at the complex. She looked at me strangely. "Guns are everywhere," she said. "Who wouldn't you want to have a gun? Everybody needs a gun. You have to have a gun to stay safe."

But then, thinking of Neal, she added, "Nobody can bring our friend back."

Henry Dixon, 70, had set up a table to sell copies of the Florida Sentinel Bulletin at 22{+n}{+d} Street and Lake Avenue. He grew up around here. He has seen the changes. He shook his head firmly from side to side when asked about the idea of letting the Panthers police the area.

"That's no good idea, oh no," he said. "A lot of things out here can be problems. People don't have money. They don't have jobs. They get frustrated. We need people like Sgt. Norris. He's a good man. He gets around. He tries to keep people in the right group."

He also is determined to win.

"People who protested the police for shooting that young man, my thing is this: Where were you before this tragedy happened?" Norris said. "Were you interacting with this young man? Did you encourage him in the right way? It's not politically correct to bring that up, but it's the truth.

"It's a big problem. Look how many African-American males are killed by guns every year. These young men don't understand what power really is. Having a gun gives them a feeling of control, freedom and status. We have to change that."

Moments later, he tapped me on the shoulder. We had to go. He had to answer a report of gunfire nearby. Other officers already were on the scene when we arrived. Fortunately, the situation wasn't serious.

This time.


jhenderson@tampatrib.com


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