Remark by ex-chief widely remembered
By BRYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- The interviews with dozens of police detectives left no doubt: Former police Chief Mack Vines used the word "orangutan" while talking about how many officers could team up to arrest certain suspects.
"As we all know, if you've got a wild orangutan, it might take more than one officer to arrest, and that's okay," one person remembered Vines saying. "If the guy is fighting like an orangutan, it will take more than one officer," another recalled.
Those versions of the comment and 15 others along similar lines appear in the notes St. Petersburg First Deputy Mayor Tish Elston took while interviewing the 53 detectives present when Vines made the comment. Elston and employee relations director Gary Cornwell asked people for their best recollection of what the chief said. The St. Petersburg Times obtained the records of the investigation under Florida Public Records Law on Friday.
Vines' use of "orangutan" offended many residents, who thought Vines may have been disparaging the black suspect in a case he had been discussing. Vines maintained he was describing behavior.
Mayor Rick Baker fired Vines Dec. 18, saying the remark sowed mistrust of the Police Department and "cannot be excused." That decision outraged many residents, who said the mayor overreacted.
Elston and Cornwell read four questions to each person they interviewed: First, did Vines say anything inappropriate or offensive? Second, did Vines talk about the number of officers needed to apprehend or subdue a suspect? Third, did Vines say anything about "a monkey or an animal."
And last, "Did you ever hear Chief Vines use the word "orangutan'? In what context?"
"We don't want to put words in people's mouths," Cornwell said. "We want to start out with a very broad question and just let them tell us what they heard. Then you try to focus in."
At least 15 people said they did not hear Vines say "orangutan," according to Cornwell and Elston's tallies. They noted that some people said they were in the back of the room and could not hear the chief at all.
The records also contain a memo that helped start the whole investigation: Community Affairs director Clarence Scott III documented a complaint he received about Vines' remark. Scott was away Friday, and Elston said she did not know who complained to Scott.
"Chief Vines allegedly commented that he was the only one with a contract, not the assistant chiefs, and he was responsible for the Police Department and that the deputy mayor or mayor doesn't have anything to say," the memo says. "He proceeded to comment that he wanted his officers to feel free to do their jobs and if it took four officers to arrest a person, then so be it, because they may be arresting an orangutan."
Elston said Vines' attitude about her and Baker's authority was not a focus of the investigation.
Cornwell said other versions of the comment that surfaced in the interviews sounded less insubordinate, such as, "I'm the police chief, and I have a contract, and it's my responsibility to run the Police Department; the buck stops here."
Elston was reluctant to discuss the investigation Friday, saying, "It's time to move on."
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