The trouble with Vines went beyond his remark
© St. Petersburg Times
On the question of whether it was silly "political correctness" that led to Tuesday's firing of St. Petersburg's police chief:
The underlying problem was serious. There is no circumstance in which a chief of police can acceptably use the word "orangutan" in discussing a black person, even as an indirect description of his behavior.
Can we agree on that much?
Over the past few days, many nice, polite people (and a few not so nice and polite) have called or written to explain that they weren't offended by the chief's use of "orangutan" to describe a black suspect's tenacious resistance. So why should anyone else be?
Goodness gracious, they continue, sometimes they even describe their own grandchildren as monkeys! It's all perfectly innocent! Tsk, tsk, people these days are so sensitive!
It is hard to reply in a few sentences, to run through several centuries of history, in which an entire continent of people was enslaved on the theory that its people were less deserving, less intelligent -- more "simian."
See, the ape comparison has a pretty ugly history.
Not just for the activist group called the Uhurus. Not just a few "troublemakers." I am reasonably certain that most, if not all, black people would rather that white people not describe them in terms of apes and monkeys.
So can this be our starting point? Can we agree that we had a problem in our city when Mack Vines said what he said? Even Vines knew what he said was wrong. He immediately began to apologize, make phone calls, schedule appearances, try to make amends.
The better focus for the debate today is on Mayor Rick Baker.
This is as unhappy a thing as can happen to a first-year mayor. If you hire a police chief and he goes sour down the road, it's the chief's fault. But if you hire a police chief and have to turn around and fire him 10 weeks later, then it's your own fault.
It is hard to avoid a little told-you-so. Was this kind of thing really so unforeseeable, given the way Vines was selected? Baker recycled Vines, who had been police chief from 1974 to 1980, after a limp "national" search. The real goal was to avoid upsetting the apple cart while moving the previous chief, Goliath Davis III, out of office. So the fruit of the search fell about 2 feet from the tree.
The mayor disagreed Tuesday when asked whether Vines' firing reflects poorly on the search process. He pointed out that St. Petersburg had gotten more applicants for police chief even than Pinellas County had received for its new county administrator. This is doubtless true. However, at least as far as modern science could detect, none of the Pinellas applicants was made of straw.
A second, mild criticism of the mayor's performance these past few days was his relative absence on the public front. I am told that he did a deliberate and excellent job of weighing matters. But with the city in turmoil he needed to be a little more public. Think Rudy here. If the fate of the city's police chief is hanging in the balance, I want to hear more from the mayor, and less from the deputies.
Having said all that, Baker did a great job on Tuesday.
This is how a grown-up mayor does a hard thing. He comes out and stands on the steps of City Hall and talks to the world. I like the fact, also, that he did it early on a Tuesday afternoon, instead of trying to hide bad news late on a Friday, as is common in politics.
The mayor's decision was that Vines had damaged himself too deeply. I thought Baker explained that well enough. Every potential future incident involving the Police Department would be called into question.
Maybe in another city, Vines could have survived. Maybe, had he been on the job for a year with good results, he would have survived. Even now, he should get some credit -- he reached out, he apologized, he tried to make things right. I wish it had been enough. But in the end the mayor decided it wasn't. That's his job.
- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at email@example.com.
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