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Cop who shot driver wants to go back

Officer James Knight is demanding to be sent back to neighborhoods torn by unrest after the shooting.

By LEANORA MINAI

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- For the fourth time in four years, St. Petersburg police Officer James Knight has asked to return to the neighborhoods where racial disturbances erupted after he fatally shot a black motorist.

But this time, the Pinellas County Police Benevolent Association says it will push Knight's request to arbitration if necessary.

"I mean, the chief needs to get over this," said Bill LauBach, the police union's attorney and executive director.

The prospect of Knight patroling predominantly black neighborhoods does not sit well with Garnelle Jenkins, president of the NAACP's St. Petersburg branch.

"No way! No," she said. "We don't want him here."

Police administrators say they are keeping Knight away from the area south of Central Avenue to protect him and the community. The union says the city is violating Knight's work contract and discriminating against him because he is white.

Knight shot and killed 18-year-old TyRon Lewis during a traffic stop in 1996, sparking two nights of street violence.

He was suspended for two months but later exonerated by an arbitrator. His discipline was rescinded, and state and federal investigators cleared him of wrong-doing.

Under former Assistant Chief Terry Upman, Knight was transferred to patrol on the north side of the city. He is not assigned off-duty jobs south of Central Avenue. Although he is a member of the 33-officer SWAT team, Knight is barred from participating in operations in those neighborhoods.

Chief Goliath Davis and Assistant Chief Rick Stelljes, who supervises the patrol division, met with Knight two weeks ago. Knight was told then that he could not work south of Central Avenue, Stelljes said.

"It's a safety issue because there's some folks in the community who still have a lot of concern over this whole issue," Stelljes said.

The city has the discretion to assign officers wherever necessary, he said.

"It's the prudent thing to do for the safety of the community and safety of the officer," Stelljes said. "We told him straight up, and he doesn't agree."

Davis was at a conference Friday and unavailable for comment.

LauBach, the union's attorney and executive director, said the city also is violating a Police Department general order that provides for "equal treatment regardless of their race, color, age or gender."

He said Knight is being denied the potential to earn extra money by working off-duty jobs such as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parade and Chunky Sunday, a Sunday occasion that attracts a young crowd and rotates between Campbell Park and Bartlett Park. Knight earns $44,324 annually, not including overtime and benefits.

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