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    Chief apologizes for 'orangutan' remark

    St. Petersburg's top cop says there was no racial slur intended in the description of a black suspect's behavior during an arrest.

    By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published December 13, 2001


    ST. PETERSBURG -- Police Chief Mack Vines formally apologized to his staff Wednesday for a comment he made likening the actions of an arrested black man to an "orangutan."

    The apology to 40 employees came a day after Vines was summoned to City Hall to meet and discuss the matter with Mayor Rick Baker, First Deputy Mayor Tish Elston and Employee Relations Director Gary Cornwell.

    "There's no malicious or racial bone in my body," Vines said Wednesday. "All of my past histories with minority communities have always been extremely favorable."

    Baker said Wednesday that Elston, Vines' immediate supervisor, would investigate the incident and find out the context in which the comment was made.

    "I'm not going to make any judgment until I have all of the facts before me," Baker said.

    About a week ago, Vines was meeting with the department's criminal investigations unit, explaining some disciplinary decisions.

    In particular, Vines talked about an April 24 arrest of a black man accused of selling drugs. During the arrest, the man entangled his feet and legs around his vehicle's steering column. An officer used knee strikes to the man's torso to get him out of the vehicle.

    Vines said he described to the criminal investigations unit that the man was "resisting significantly to the point of almost like an orangutan."

    "My description was the resistance, not the individual at all," Vines said. "The person was resisting in the manner of a fierceness that I've seen orangutans react."

    Some high-ranking black police officials, including Assistant Police Chief Luke Williams and Sgt. Al White, said they were in the meeting when Vines made the remark, but they declined to comment late Wednesday.

    Vines said he thought nothing of the matter until he heard that people in the community and department were offended.

    Someone called City Hall to complain, he said.

    "I was shocked but yet extremely sorry that I said something like that, and I am," said Vines, 63. "I am taking it very seriously, and I'm very concerned about people's perception of me and the department."

    Vines apologized to his staff at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

    Assistant Police Chief Debbie Prine, who has known Vines since 1974, said Vines appeared truly sorry about the comment.

    "I can understand where people came from," Prine said. "I think he just wasn't thinking, and I don't think he ever, ever intended to insult any particular group."

    Vines became St. Petersburg's police chief on Oct. 5. He has dealt with racial issues throughout his four decades of law enforcement, including a stint as St. Petersburg police chief in the 1970s.

    In 1974, Vines inherited a St. Petersburg Police Department that had a poor relationship with the black community. During six years as chief, he promoted black officers and got black residents more involved in the department through the Community Police Council, a citizens group that still meets monthly.

    But he still dealt with his share of racial tensions in St. Petersburg, including civil disturbances in 1978 that followed the fatal shooting of a black man by a white officer.

    In Dallas in the 1980s, Vines was hired as police chief to calm racial tensions between police and minority residents. Again, he challenged the old guard and promoted minority officers -- actions that met with some resistance from white officers and white residents.

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