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    Clearwater NAACP examines complaints against police force

    The chapter will look into allegations of excessive force in the arrests of four black men.

    By ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 10, 2002


    CLEARWATER -- After a few years of keeping a relatively low profile, the Clearwater branch of the NAACP is ready to be seen.

    First on its agenda is investigating four instances in which, the NAACP says, witnesses say that the Clearwater Police Department used excessive force in arresting four black men, all younger than 30, during the past year.

    The NAACP announced Monday that it would compare witness statements with police reports and then decide whether to further pursue the matter.

    "We are keenly aware of and supportive of the very important and difficult role the police must perform in our community," said Arthonia Godwin, president of the chapter. "However, our support stops at the point where the use of force is unreasonable and unjustified."

    NAACP leaders won't release the names of the men involved but say that one 2-week-old case involves a situation in which Clearwater officers allegedly strip-searched a young man in public.

    NAACP leaders say the arrest of Joseph Walden, the great-nephew of County Commissioner Calvin Harris, is an example of the kind of case they want to review. Walden's case is not among the four to be scrutinized. Walden, 18, was thrown to the ground and arrested outside the Ross Norton Recreation Complex about two weeks ago.

    Clearwater police officials Tuesday wouldn't comment on the NAACP's plan because they were unaware of it.

    "We know nothing about it," police spokesman Wayne Shelor said.

    The Clearwater Police Department has a policy against racial profiling and in the past three years has fielded 12 official allegations of excessive force, Shelor said. None of the complaints were sustained, Shelor said. A police review of Walden's case is still open.

    In that case, officers thought Walden's 2001 Chevrolet Impala was a stolen vehicle but later found it wasn't. Safety Harbor Commissioner Robin Borland witnessed the arrest and called it excessive and disturbing. Walden is lucky because he is part of a prominent family and because there were several well-respected witnesses, said his attorney, who added that that's not always the case.

    "So often in our community, the ones who cannot afford lawyers or do not come from families of social status are relegated to suffering the indignities that are meted out by some officers of bad will and bad intent," said Darryl Rouson, Walden's attorney and the president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP.

    Rouson welcomed the efforts of the Clearwater chapter to review similar incidents.

    "We intend to work right along with them in any capacity they see we can help them," Rouson said.

    The investigation into the Police Department inaugurates what the Clearwater branch calls a reorganization of local volunteers. In recent years, the Clearwater NAACP was slow in responding to civil rights complaints, organizers said.

    All that changes now, said Godwin, the chapter president.

    "We want to shorten response time from a week to a day," Godwin said. "I think we need to heighten the awareness of what is taking place. It's kind of a case where one may get a bit lax and it'll get worse before it gets better."

    Rouson is happy to see Clearwater's action plan.

    "We certainly urge our sister branches to become more aggressive on issues that are daily affecting the plight of minorities," Rouson said.

    The NAACP plans to interview all non-police officers involved in each altercation. It will then compare those interviews to the police reports. After that, the chapter's Legal Redress Committee will decide whether any of the young men need attorneys.

    LeRoy Strickland, a former assistant state attorney in Miami-Dade County, heads up the redress committee. If anything, the investigation should encourage others to step forward, Strickland said.

    "I've heard conversations just in passing in the community about incidents that are taking place," Strickland said. "I think people should report it. I think they should know we are there to investigate things of that nature."

    -- Adrienne Samuels can be reached at 445-4157 or samuels@sptimes.com.

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