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Another cop inquiry, another PR disaster

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 18, 2001


Trouble has never slowed him down before, so now that he's talking vaguely about running for mayor, there's no reason for St. Petersburg police Chief Go Davis to worry.

Antonio Garner isn't the first of his cops to fall under suspicion.

The last time it was Donnie Williams.

You remember him -- the sergeant who was promoted to lieutenant after an informant fingered him as a possible drug dealer.

The department did an all-out investigation.

It ran all of six, still secret pages.

Now Garner, a street cop in the west side of the city, has been charged with obstructing a Gulfport cop who suspected him of trying to hold up a man early this month.

Garner is also a suspect in several other St. Petersburg robberies that occurred around Christmas. Most occurred in the area where Garner worked.

But his arrest isn't likely soon, because the victims can't all identify him.

* * *

The worst thing I could do is clamor for the arrest of Officer Garner. They may have the wrong guy, and for Garner's sake, I hope so.

But here's what I don't get.

Is the chief of police talking about what is usually one of his favorite subjects, his concern that the integrity of his department be maintained?

Not a peep.

In one of those ironies that belongs in a crime novel you buy at the airport to kill time, the head of the robbery squad directing the investigation is Sgt. Al White.

White is a close friend of the chief's and the stepfather of a young man who miraculously avoided prosecution for murder for a killing that occurred the first night of St. Petersburg's racial disturbances. The two other men who were with White's stepson that night were charged.

If the chief were really interested in what the public thought, he'd have the investigation of the robberies allegedly involving Garner supervised by a man who doesn't look like he got a special favor for his stepson.

It's true that the final call in the case of White's stepson was made by prosecutors, but the fine points get lost on the suspicious.

If Garner is not charged, how much of a leap will it be to suspect that he also received special treatment?

* * *

It is raining bad news in the St. Petersburg Police Department. But Chief Davis continues to dance between the raindrops.

He manages to do so by keeping an exquisite distance between himself and the investigators beneath him.

The way he sees it, they're just doing their job.

Of course, if you don't do the job as he wants it done, you could be treated to the professional equivalent of a beheading.

While the Garner investigation perked along in total silence, a federal judge issued a stunning opinion in a case brought against Davis and the city by a former woman officer who charged him with sexual harassment and retaliation.

The judge wrote that the law so restricted her ability to find for the woman, Karen Lea, that she had no choice but to throw out the case.

Then the judge dropped a bomb.

U.S. District Judge Ann Aldridge said she had "heard troubling evidence" concerning Davis and his department.

It looked as if Davis demoted two cops who sided with Lea in a pension hearing.

It looked as though Davis pressured a city hearing officer to rule his way, against Lea.

"No one should regard the court's decision in this case as an endorsement of the Police Department or the manner in which it ended the career of a 24-year veteran," Aldridge wrote.

But if you live in St. Petersburg, keep believing in your Police Department.

You might also keep your eye out for rain.

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