When three police officers fired on a stolen Altima in April, wounding two black teenagers, it reminded many of a fateful afternoon 17 years ago, when a police officer shot and killed a black teenager in the same South St. Petersburg neighborhood, sparking the worst riots in the city’s history.
Much like the 1996 shooting, the recent standoff has raised questions, though on a much smaller scale, about the police department’s relationship with the black community, the level of aggression among its officers and the possibility that policies need to change.
Unlike 1996, the questions this time are being raised during a mayoral race.
What people in St. Petersburg’s black community think of the police department is important to candidates in a roundabout way.
If people believe they are being treated unfairly by the police department, they are likely to withdraw support for the mayor who appointed the police chief. And that support is crucial because, historically, whichever candidate captures the black vote wins the election.
“The black vote has gone disproportionately to a single candidate,” said Darryl Paulson, a political science professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, who has studied city politics for years.
“That’s been the marginal difference in who wins and who loses.”
The Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the NAACP is getting overwhelmed with a range of complaints, some of which touch on recent police shootings, and police pursuits.
“Before we can deal with one, we have five more,” he said.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster is expected to meet with Sykes at 1 p.m. today at the St. Petersburg chapter of the Urban League to discuss recent shootings and pursuits. Also expected to attend are Police Chief Chuck Harmon, County Commission Chairman Ken Welch and representatives of the ACLU and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor’s office, Sykes said Saturday.
Some of what Sykes says is not borne out by statistics culled by the police department, but one thing is: In all of last year, there were only three incidents in which the police intentionally shot at people. This year, there have been five, and the year isn’t halfway over yet.
Sykes is also worried that, with the departure of some senior black officers, the police department won’t have enough blacks in leadership positions administrators who might be better able to address the black community’s concerns.
One of those leaving is Assistant Police Chief Cedric Gordon. Gordon took leave after his daughter, a soldier with the U.S. Army, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. The other is Sgt. Al White, who’s in charge of the robbery division. Both are retiring in September.
The pair makes up two-thirds of a triumvirate historically known for drumming up support for candidates in the black community, Paulson said. The other – and the most influential is Goliath Davis III.
Davis rose to become the city’s first black police chief in the wake of the 1996 riots before he was named a deputy mayor. He was fired in 2011 by Foster for failing to attend the funeral of a white police officer killed in the line of duty by a black teenager. David recently called another mayoral candidate – former councilwoman Kathleen Ford, once a political opponent a “viable” candidate.
“I don’t know that there’s any other black officer who can have an overriding impact [on a mayoral race] other than Go Davis,” Paulson said.
Sykes denies his recently voiced concerns have anything to do with the mayoral race.
“I like the mayor personally,” Sykes said. “But the NAACP, we don’t have any dogs in that fight,” he said, referring to the three-way race between Foster, Ford and former state representative and councilman Rick Kriseman.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Foster, Kriseman or Ford,” Sykes said. “We’re looking for systemic changes.”
“If you want to keep politics out of it,” Sykes said, appearing to give Foster advice, “have your police chief tell his officers to stand down, don’t do anything questionable, especially at a time when he’s running.”
Foster did not return a telephone call to discuss the issue Friday, but Ford and Kriseman did. Both said they are trying to win votes in all the neighborhoods in the city. Like Sykes, they have concerns over recent shootings and the department’s chase policy.
“I know our officers put their lives on the line every day, and I appreciate that,” said Ford. “But I want to make sure we’re following policies that protect these officers and innocent victims.”
Kriseman has heard complaints about the police department’s chase policy.
“There’s a feeling it’s been loosened too much, and as a result there are chases that don’t fall within the confines of what the policies should be,” he said.
“The shootings that have occurred … there are things that could have been done to avoid them.”
Once Davis was named chief in 1997, he made systemic changes that reined in police officers – including a policy that prohibited them from standing in front of or behind a suspect’s car, and from reaching in the driver’s side window to turn off the ignition.
Harmon, one of Davis’ successors, changed some of the policies Davis put in place. For instance, he loosened the pursuit policy after Foster was elected, allowing officers to chase burglars on the run. Before, only criminals involved in violent felonies, such as rape or murder, could be pursued.
“It was a mayoral issue,” Harmon said. “I didn’t change it, the mayor did. When he was elected, we had a difference of opinion. When he became mayor, I acquiesced because he’s my boss.”
Still, the chief said, the policy change did not result in a statistically significant upswing in the number of pursuits, and police department statistics bear him out.
Harmon also doesn’t always take cops involved in shootings off the street while their actions are under review, as his predecessors did. Harmon did order the three members of the Street Crimes unit who wounded the teenagers in April to work inside the police station while the department’s internal affairs division completes its investigation.
The chief defended his case-by-case approach, saying officers were frequently taken off the streets for four months while internal affairs investigators reviewed shootings where no one was injured. Officers asked that that be changed, and Harmon agreed. They have to be psychologically screened, though, before returning to patrol duty.
However, Harmon allowed three vice and narcotics detectives to continue working cases after they fired on a car that barreled toward them in a predominantly black neighborhood on March 8, wounding at least one person inside.
He said that shooting concerns him less than the one in April because the car officers fired on tried to run them down out of the blue while they were serving a search warrant.
Davis said one reason he spoke publicly about Ford is because he’s become disenchanted with, among other things, the rolling back of some police department procedures and policies.
Of course, Davis and Ford famously clashed when she was on the City Council.
Ford criticized his performance as a police administrator and addressed him critically in public. She also came under fire during the last mayoral election, when she lost to Foster, after referring to Davis as the “HNIC” or Head Negro In Charge on the Bubba The Love Sponge radio show. Some thought the “N” stood for a racial epithet, but Ford has always maintained that wasn’t the case.
Last week, Davis defended her remarks, though he did not at the time.
“She was talking about the fact that she had just heard Cornel West,” the Princeton University professor who has written extensively about race and power. “She wasn’t astute enough to do that.”
Ford said she heard Cornel West speak at Eckerd College
Davis said both the Ford and Kriseman camps have approached him about an endorsement. While saying Ford has “matured as a politician,” Davis has yet to make an endorsement.
“My bottom line is, I will vote [for] or endorse either viable candidate there is,” Davis said. “But I am not supporting Foster.”
The decision has less to do with Foster firing him than with Foster’s legacy, he said.
“The last thing I want to do is come across as retaliatory,” he said.