Baker fires Vines for rousing distrust
By LEANORA MINAI and BRYAN GILMER
published December 19, 2001
Less than a week after the St. Petersburg police chief apologized for using orangutan to describe the actions of an arrested black man, Mayor Rick Baker called Vines into his office Tuesday and fired him.
Vines had been on the job 74 days.
"I went back and forth until I arrived at the decision," Baker said as he stood on the steps of City Hall and explained his concern about Vines' remarks. "They reopened old divisions and a renewed feeling of distrust of our department by many in our community, and therefore, they cannot be excused."
Baker immediately named Assistant Chief Chuck Harmon, a 19-year veteran and one of the four finalists for job when Vines was selected in September, as police chief.
The remark that Vines made on Dec. 4 triggered a weeklong inquiry that quickly expanded to include a review of the chief's disciplinary decisions. First Deputy Mayor Tish Elston, who led the inquiry for Baker, said the investigation did not reveal anything "grossly inappropriate."
But Vines could not overcome public reaction to the orangutan remark.
"I think it's more what the comment produced," Elston said. "We've had a very good general feeling in the city that things are moving forward. Then, with a single situation, all of that kind of gets pulled into question."
The leader of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP was pleased. Darryl Rouson, chapter president, said Baker acted "quickly and decisively to reaffirm and reassure the black community."
But many patrol officers were furious, saying Baker fired a good chief. Some officers contended that Baker yielded to pressure from the Uhuru-backed Citizens United for Shared Prosperity, which had called for Vines' firing.
"It's a sad day in St. Petersburg," said Sgt. Earl Rutland, a 30-year veteran as he was walking in the police station late Tuesday. "I literally had tears in my eyes when I heard the news. I pulled over."
Vines, 63, who was St. Petersburg chief from 1974 to 1980 and started his second tour with the city Oct. 5, could not be reached for comment.
"It's very embarrassing, very humiliating," Vines told Bay News 9 in a brief telephone interview. "Life goes on."
Vines will receive $27,850 as three months' severance pay -- a longer period than he served as chief.
His downfall was even quicker.
Baker and Elston said they learned of the comment six days later from a citizen who called to say there were concerns in the community about the remark.
They quickly started investigating, first interviewing more than 30 officers who heard the remark. The inquiry broadened, but Baker ultimately turned his focus back to Vines' remark and the resulting public reaction.
"The comments, however innocently made, were inappropriate," the mayor said.
Elston met with Vines in police headquarters until 7 p.m. Monday, reviewing his disciplinary decisions. She said that when she left Vines, no decision had been made about the chief's future.
"I just told him that we were going to try to move things forward from there," Elston said.
She drove several blocks to City Hall and met with Baker. Around 11 p.m., Elston called Harmon, the city's assistant chief of patrol. She asked Harmon if he was interested in the chief's job.
"I told her I was going to talk it over with my wife," said Harmon, 42. "I called her back and told her if the job was offered, I'd be willing to take it."
Early Tuesday morning, Baker and Elston met with Vines in City Hall. They asked him to consider resigning, but Vines asked for time to think.
He drove to a Bob Evans restaurant near Tyrone Square Mall for breakfast. There, he unexpectedly ran into 12 officers from the Police Department's domestic and personal violence unit. Vines sat down with the officers and ate, but he did not say anything about his situation. He picked up the $100 tab and left.
"He has a very generous spirit," said Sgt. Katy Connor-Dubina, who was at the breakfast. "He was like our secret Santa. Little did we know."
Vines drove back to City Hall and told Baker and Elston he would not resign. So Baker fired him.
Council members were notified of Baker's decision before a news conference at 2 p.m. Tuesday. Some council members attended, but noticeably absent was Goliath Davis III -- the chief who once promoted Harmon and was succeeded by Vines.
Davis, who still has close ties to police officers and remains influential in the city, has repeatedly declined to discuss what role he has played in the weeklong controversy. Baker said he has consulted with Davis, now deputy mayor of midtown economic development, as he has with other members of his inner circle.
"I have been staying out of this matter as much as I could," Davis said Tuesday afternoon.
Council Chairwoman Rene Flowers said the firing sends the right message to city employees: Not a hint of racism will be tolerated.
"We, as elected officials, the chief of police, deputy mayors are held to a level of respect and professionalism by the community," Flowers said. "It might seem like an unfair level, but we have a right to demand that of ourselves."
Council members Virginia Littrell and John Bryan said they were surprised by Baker's decision.
"It appeared to me that the majority of this community felt that the remark was poor judgment but not the caliber to dismiss the police chief," Littrell said.
After the news conference, council member Bill Foster said he was still trying to understand Baker's decision.
"I would like to sit down with him," Foster said of the mayor. "I would like some comfort with it, and right now I just don't have (that)."
The sentiments were strongest among police officers, many of whom said that morale was up since Vines became chief.
"I think he catered to the pressures instead of actually getting the true facts," Officer Julie Gironda said of Baker. "All he's looking for is the next vote."
Officer Jack Soule, who is union president, said the union membership will vote after the holidays on whether the rank and file has confidence in Harmon as chief of police.
"I think it's important that we send a message that the mayor screwed up on this one," Soule said.
Still, some officers are backing Harmon.
"I support Chief Harmon," said Assistant Chief Luke Williams. "We need to concentrate on moving the department forward."
And others are struggling to make sense of everything.
"I can't really say that it was good that Chief Vines was terminated," said Maj. Reggie Oliver. "Everyone's entitled to make a mistake, but I don't know if he would have an opportunity to make some corrections with the community having total trust with him. Now we'll never know."
- Staff writer Leanora Minai can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8406. Staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report.
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