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    A Times Editorial

    Calculated coyness

    Voters shouldn't be fooled by Kathleen Ford's sudden refusal to criticize the police chief. She has spent four years assailing him and has proved nothing.

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001


    After four years of relentlessly attacking the police chief, St. Petersburg City Council member Kathleen Ford has become curiously coy as a candidate for mayor. Her constant criticisms won her the support of the Police Benevolent Association, which is seldom satisfied with any boss, but some of her would-be political supporters want her to cozy up to chief Goliath Davis. When asked whether she would fire him, the typically blunt-talking councilwoman refuses to say.

    Ford's awkward campaign acrobatics could be dismissed as amateur politics if not for the powerfully unsettling message they send. Law enforcement is among any city government's most vital functions, and the mayor and police chief need to be able to inspire confidence in public safety. What Ford has done as a council member is to politicize and cheapen law enforcement, to use her public position to launch missiles of misguided innuendo.

    Ford: "The chief misled the public. . . . And misled is a nice word for lying." Ford: "Does this reek to high heaven or what?" Ford: "When every search warrant for a narcotics investigation has to go through the police chief, there's a concern about safety and whether somebody's getting tipped off ahead of time."

    Ford has never proved any of her high-profile allegations. As for her bald suggestion that the police chief might personally tip off targets of drug investigations, she offered zero proof and then ignored reporters' questions.

    Not incidentally, her council colleagues rebuked Ford's inquests. She repeatedly demanded an independent management evaluation of the police department, which the council rejected. She even asked for a committee to analyze whether the city should abolish its police department and "contract for full police service with the Pinellas Sheriff's Office," which the council wisely rejected. So what Ford accomplished was merely to smear mud.

    As she now runs for mayor, Ford is attempting to sound more measured in her concerns about law enforcement, but voters should not be fooled. There is a not-so-subtle racial calculation to this abrupt transformation.

    Davis, of course, is the city's first black police chief. He is a police administrator with a doctorate in criminolgy who grew up in St. Petersburg and began work as a patrol officer some 27 years ago. He has helped to bridge the uneasy divide between some black residents and the police who patrol their neighborhoods. But as Davis has begun to change some of the culture within his own department, he has encountered a predictable resistance from some white officers and from the union. Ford's crude attacks on Davis play to that racial divide, which is one of the reasons they are so reckless and inexcusable. It's also why she has so greatly offended many black voters, and why political advisers are telling her to tone down the Davis rhetoric.

    In this campaign, voters are entitled to know the truth about law enforcement. For the record, St. Petersburg's rate of crime has steadily declined in recent years, dropping 7.7 percent in 1999. Last year, the city experienced the fewest murders in 30 years. The number of citizen complaints against officers has also decreased, and the number of arrests for drugs and prostitution, two crimes that Ford claimed Davis has been lax in fighting, has increased markedly in Davis' tenure. Since 1997, the department has been subjected to five national studies and reviews and has passed them all.

    That's the documented record of public safety in St. Petersburg, which may be why Ford has such trouble explaining her own.

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