TBO.com: Tampa Bay Online, The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Times - breaking news and weather.
Friday, Nov 28, 2014
Local News

St. Pete's racial tensions reflected in rise, fall of Davis

By
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 03:21 PM
ST. PETERSBURG -

He was a street cop who became the city’s first black police chief, a power broker who could make or break a mayoral campaign. A professor with a Ph.D. who was so esteemed by University of South Florida leaders they put his picture on billboards.

But Goliath Davis III, St. Petersburg’s most iconic African-American, has also been a polarizing figure, one who often has been perceived as using his significant sway on the city’s predominantly black south side to do as he pleases.

As police chief, he drew the ire of many within the mostly white police department for reining in officers after he took the helm after the city’s race riots in 1996, the worst in its history. He told the troops they couldn’t swear, couldn’t wear shorts. He made the pursuit policy more restrictive.

He seemed to care more about the sensitivities of black residents than he did about the desire of his troops to tackle crime, his critics in the department have long contended.

That controversial legacy was so potent, has lingered so long, that this year, a full decade after he left the department to become a deputy mayor, he became a lightning rod once again. This time, his career did not survive the controversy.

Davis opted not to attend the funerals of two white police officers who were killed in a standoff in January with a fugitive, who was also killed and who was black. But he went to the fugitive’s
funeral.

That struck a nerve.

"Davis fails to attend the funerals of two slaughtered police officers who served under him when he was police chief but goes to the funeral of the human piece of garbage that killed those same officers," one resident wrote in an email to Mayor Bill Foster.

Then another officer was killed.

Through an intermediary, Davis was told that Foster wanted him to attend the funeral.

Davis said he wouldn’t. He didn’t, and on March 4 he was fired.

***

His political career had come full circle. He benefited from the perception that police weren’t sensitive to black residents, and he fell from grace because of the perception he wasn’t sensitive to police.

Davis would not comment for this story other than to verify the timeline of events leading to his dismissal.

A native of the city’s south side and one of 10 children raised by a single mother, Davis started as a patrolman in 1974. His rise was meteoric — and divisive.

After three years, Davis, who had a master’s degree, was granted a leave to pursue a doctorate in criminology at Florida State University. Upon his return two years later, he bypassed the ranks of sergeant and lieutenant to become a division chief in 1980.

His leapfrogging those positions rankled many white officers, who thought it violated a sense of fair play.

Ten years later, Davis would become an arch-enemy of Chief Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger, a popular cop’s cop from Los Angeles who had the backing of the police union.

The two sparred over, among other things, Curtsinger’s decision not to promote some black officers, including Davis’ confidant and friend, Cedric Gordon.

After 18 months on the job, Curtsinger was fired in 1992 amid allegations of racial insensitivity. Interim City Manager Don McRae, godfather to one of Davis’ children, made the decision. Many ministers in the black community had called for the termination.

When Curtsinger decided to stay in town and eventually run for mayor, Davis put his political heft behind his opponent, incumbent Dave Fischer.

Fischer won, barely.

"Davis emerged in that campaign as a political force as much as a law enforcement force," said Darryl Paulson, retired professor emeritus at USF who has studied the city’s black voting patterns.

It wouldn’t be the last time the candidate Davis supported would win the mayoral election.

"Every candidate he endorses wins in the black community handily," said Deveron Gibbons, a black executive with Amscot Financial who ran for mayor in 2009, coming in third in the primary.

That voting bloc usually determines the winner.

"When you look at the vote that comes predominantly from black precincts, and I’ve looked at this for 30 years, it’s a very uniform vote," Paulson said. "Either the leadership in the black community is convincing blacks to vote a certain way or blacks think very much alike and tend to support the same candidate."

Curtsinger’s successor was Darrel Stephens, but Stephens’ abilities as police chief came into question when riots broke out in 1996 after a white police officer fatally shot a black teenager following a traffic stop. Davis, then an assistant chief, kept a low profile during the ensuing controversies, but Fischer moved Stephens to city hall and named Davis the city’s first black chief.

 ***

Davis was a different kind of chief.

He turned down at least $100,000 in potential federal money because he didn’t want to use it to lock up drug-dealing suspects exclusively in the city’s mostly black south side.

He once slapped the wrist of a police officer who Davis said did not have enough reasonable suspicion to stop a car occupied by two black teenagers, even though the car turned out to be stolen.

Two internal-affairs investigations centered on officers falsifying time records, and some were fired, demoted or suspended.

Statistics showed Davis was succeeding with his approach. In the year after he took the helm, crime went down 7 percent — twice that in the area of the riots. Complaints against police officers also plummeted.

But some police officers weren’t happy.

Roy Olsen was a sergeant demoted to officer after one of the investigations into the timesheets.

"The black community — he didn’t care about anyone else," said Olsen, who retired in 2005 and works as an officer in another Pinellas County police department. "If you aren’t part of his entourage or his clique or a south St. Pete resident, he has no use for you.

"He’s not going to speak up for white officers or any officers," Olsen said.

When Fischer opted not to run for re-election in 2001, corporate lawyer Rick Baker joined the race and openly courted Davis’ support. Baker’s opponent, city Councilwoman Kathleen Ford, was a vocal critic of Davis.

A Baker campaign sign appeared in Davis’ yard.

Baker won by 14 percentage points, carrying almost the entire south side.

In a recent interview, Baker said that when he was mayor, he wanted to keep Davis as chief but heard he was retiring. So he offered him a new job. He declined to discuss Davis’ power in politics.

On a Friday in October 2001, Davis retired from his $111,400 job as police chief. He began drawing a pension of more than $74,000. The following Monday, he started working as Baker’s deputy mayor for midtown development, making $118,000 a year, plus his pension.

Baker thought Davis did an exemplary job and routinely gave him bonuses of about $2,000 a year, according to evaluations.

By the time he was fired, Davis was making $152,736 a year, not counting the pension.

His personnel file says that as police chief, Davis improved relations between the city and its black residents, readying the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods for economic development.

While deputy mayor, he helped bring a supermarket, a bank and a post office to the area where the white officer shot the black motorist in 1996.

***

The 2009 election was different, and not just because term limits kept Baker from running again, Gibbons said. Many black residents did not have much trust in either Ford, who was running again, or candidate Bill Foster, a city councilman.

In the primary, Gibbons won the south side but didn’t make the runoff.

Both the remaining candidates committed missteps, Gibbons said, including Foster, who declined to be photographed with Davis and his supporters. Ford made a bigger mistake, referring to Davis on the Bubba The Love Sponge radio show as "HNIC," a phrase in which the "N" stands for a racial epithet. About 30 religious and civic leaders protested outside city hall.

Foster beat Ford, but in contrast to Baker’s substantial victories, he won by about 5 percent.

In keeping with a campaign promise, Foster did not fire Davis. But he had Davis answer to City Administrator Tish Elston rather than to the mayor.

Still, Foster went to bat for Davis. He vigorously defended him when a distant relative of Davis’ sold land to the city for much more than it was worth. An audit concluded Davis was not involved in the negotiations but suggested there might be the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Then it was noted on Bubba’s radio show that although Davis had not attended the funerals of two officers killed in a standoff with fugitive Hydra Lacey, he had attended Lacey’s funeral.

Even with the publicity over that, Foster issued a statement backing Davis.

But then another officer, David Crawford, was fatally shot. It was Crawford’s funeral that Davis was instructed to attend by his new boss, Elston.

Davis declined, saying he would be too distraught to attend because a colleague of his at the police department had been fatally shot 30 years earlier.

When Davis didn’t attend Crawford’s funeral, Foster fired him.

This time, no ministers or civic leaders protested on the steps of city hall.

spthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 815-1074.

Subscribe to The Tampa Tribune

Comments