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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2002
When I moved to St. Petersburg more than 10 years ago, the downtown was wearing the grim face of recession, and tensions between the Police Department and the African-American community were approaching the breaking point. In recent years, the downtown has been transformed into a vibrant center of shops, restaurants, museums and residential housing just blocks from a magnificent waterfront. The Police Department has come a long way too, but you would never know it from listening to the Uhuru activists and some police union leaders. What would some people in this city do if they couldn't use the police and race to promote their own agendas?
The Police Department, which should be a source of pride, is instead the single greatest source of tension in this city. It pervades city politics and aggravates race relations. It divides our citizens and police officers along racial lines, and it diverts our attention from other problems. Unfortunately, certain elements in our community -- black and white -- seem determined to keep it that way. It doesn't matter whether the police chief is black or white, or whether the crime rate is up or down, he is whipsawed between those who say the police are coming down too hard on crime in black neighborhoods and those who accuse him of tolerating crime in those same neighborhoods. Rumors, whispers, misperceptions and outright lies fuel the turmoil and divisions.
The fact is, the people in St. Petersburg should be proud of their Police Department. It's not perfect, but it's not out of control. It is with few exceptions a professional and disciplined force. Unlike some other cities, we do not have a problem with police brutality or corruption. You want to know what a bad police department looks like? Go to Miami and pray you don't have an encounter with police. Last week, Miami officials approved an independent civilian review board to investigate police misconduct, of which Miami has plenty. In the last month, police in Miami-Dade fatally shot four people, and since September, 13 Miami police officers have been charged with planting guns or manipulating evidence at crime scenes where civilians were shot. Across the bay from St. Petersburg, three Tampa police officers have been killed in the line of duty since 1998. Can you remember the last time a St. Petersburg officer was killed?
Contrary to what some critics of Mayor Rick Baker and police Chief Chuck Harmon are suggesting, it is not the policy of St. Petersburg police to tolerate crimes in black neighborhoods or anywhere else in the city. That nonsense was widely circulated when Goliath Davis, the department's first black chief, was in charge, and it's still being spread. Davis was the target of a particularly vicious whispering campaign during his time as police chief, and his critics, including some local politicians, have blamed him for the department's morale problems.
St. Petersburg's police chief at the time of my arrival here was Ernest Curtsinger, who was the toast of the law-and-order crowd. African-American leaders complained about what they saw as his insensitivity to their concerns about the policing of black neighborhoods. When Curtsinger was fired by a black administrator in City Hall, the city divided largely along racial lines. Many white citizens were furious, as were Curtsinger's supporters among rank-and-file police officers. The poisonous residue from Curtsinger's firing still lingers in the city's political life -- and inside the Police Department.
In the past decade progressive mayors (David Fischer and now Rick Baker) and their police chiefs (Darrel Stephens, Go Davis and now Chuck Harmon) have worked hard to rebuild trust between the police and black citizens, and their efforts have paid off. Recently, when an arrest incident in Midtown set off another round of charges and countercharges about policing policy, prominent African-American ministers, civil rights leaders and elected officials stepped forward to publicly support the police in their efforts to crack down on illegal drug trafficking in black neighborhoods. This time, they did not remain silent, as they have in the past, while Omali Yeshitela and his Uhuru Movement took center stage to accuse the police of pursuing a "containment" policy in the black community. These black leaders came forward because they trust Mayor Baker and his Police Department.
This is a huge step forward in the relationship between law enforcement and a community that has historically -- and for good reason -- distrusted police. It must not be lost in the latest controversy, which I think was triggered by Baker's decision to fire Mack Vines three months after he had named him chief. Underneath the public controversy over Vines' use of the word "orangutan" in discussing the case of a black suspect resisting arrest was the mayor's concern that the chief was relaxing discipline within the department.
Last week, police officers rejected by a narrow vote a generous contract offer from the city. Union leaders said it was the officers' way of expressing their unhappiness with the way the city has treated them. So how has the city treated them? At a time when the city is facing a $12-million deficit in next year's budget, and at a time when other city employees are getting a 3 percent raise, the mayor has offered police officers a 15 percent increase by the end of next year that would put their pay at or near the top among Pinellas law enforcement agencies.
So what is it the police union and its members really want? Since a generous pay increase didn't do anything for their morale, maybe someone could explain exactly what would. Could it be that they want the chief to ease up on discipline and accountability? I don't know, but I wish someone would tell me what the real problem is.