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With rank comes responsibility

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 28, 2003

I had to talk to Cal Dennie.

He is the newest captain at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, the first black one who doesn't work at the jail, and he is the newly appointed diversity officer.

In his first newspaper profile after his promotion from deputy to captain, he was many of the things I and others find contemptible.

He was hired though affirmative action, but he does not support it. He sees prejudice and discrimination, but he doesn't speak out against it. He does not support the NAACP or other organizations that "divide" the Sheriff's Office. He has never been on the front line of the civil rights movement.

That's how he represented himself in the newspaper.

I take it personally when a 54-year-old black man, who is enjoying a successful career because many other people sacrificed theirs -- some their lives -- fails to make that connection and feels no sense of obligation.

Had no one stood up to advocate abolition, slavery would have had a longer life. Had no one faced off with the inhumanity of Jim Crow and segregation, there would have been no Civil Rights Act. Had no one put themselves on the line to say discrimination in employment was wrong, Dennie would not have been hired as a deputy in Pinellas County 21 years ago. Had some current and past deputies not sacrificed their careers and put themselves under scrutiny by bringing to light the shameful fact that no black patrol deputies had been promoted past sergeant for 20 years, Dennie would still hold a deputy's rank.

Dennie, in the article, seemed oblivious to all of that.

St. Petersburg's Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, who came under fire as police chief for making some bold diversity moves, called Dennie to say the article was troubling.

Several black deputies said they were concerned by it but said they would withhold judgment until they had a chance to talk with Dennie.

I realize newspapers don't generally print transcripts of interviews and that sometimes words that seem expendable to the reporter hold essential context to the speaker, and the complete thought often expresses much more than its excerpt.

So I needed to talk to Dennie to see if there was more to him than the man in the article. I wanted to see if Dennie could be the advocate the position called for or if he could be content merely to be the "black face where the public could see it," as the sheriff characterized the opportunity the new position provided.

Dennie said he sees his new position as the most challenging he has had at the Sheriff's Office. "I have a lot of people looking at me. I've got a lot to do. I have a lot of people looking at me and I'm going to get it done."

Admitting that he has chosen not to confront discrimination and prejudice in the past, he said his posture will change in his position as diversity officer. "Now I have to be on the front line. I had other priorities (than speaking out against the discrimination). Now I have the voice and the position to do something about it."

For Deputy Lendel Bright and Sgt. Robert Kidd, retired Lt. Ed White and all those others whose courage and sacrifice created Dennie's new job and promotion, I hope he is right. I hope he can reverse years of seeing prejudice and discrimination as something he could ignore and begin to see it as something that can't be left for someone else to confront.

I hope he can reverse his years of avoiding organizations such as the NAACP and others that fought for equal treatment of minorities because he felt they "split" the department and can learn in a hurry that significant change does not come out of polite, cautious conversation. It is as true in the Sheriff's Office as it is in everything else, from bed to business to bureaucracy: Positions change when they become uncomfortable.

Without the discomfort, the disruptive influence that refuses to accept business as usual, there is little incentive to change.

Sheriff Everett Rice didn't have an epiphany one morning and suddenly see that his agency has not treated minority employees fairly. He responded to public awareness and pressure that made it uncomfortable to continue the practices that throughout the agency's history gave advantage to white men.

That discomfort came courtesy of some deputies who were not content to focus only on their own careers and let prejudice and discrimination stall others, from deputies who knew that by speaking out, they would not walk through the doors their actions opened.

They will have been labeled troublemakers, not team players, radicals, loose cannons, all those terms executives use to avoid empowering people who disagree with them. They create opportunities for those who have stood quietly on the sidelines and can only hope it awakens some sense of responsibility in them.

Dennie and Rice have made history for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. But they have to remember that they have merely made a step, not achieved a goal. They are in position to bring revolutionary change to the agency.

Both owe a debt of thanks to the troublemakers who got them there.

To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail

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