City split on Vines decision
By LEONORA LaPETER and ALICIA CALDWELL
ST. PETERSBURG -- Police Chief Mack Vines was on the job just 10 weeks, but in that time he turned adversaries into allies.
He also turned friends into foes, in numbers large enough that Mayor Rick Baker felt he couldn't ignore the potential damage to the city from an extended stay by Vines.
Some residents who initially opposed his hiring were outraged by his dismissal Tuesday.
"I'm devastated, I'm disappointed," said Sharon Russ, a member of the Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association, a black woman who did not support Baker's decision to hire Vines. "For once I felt someone had come in and restored the morale to police officers to come in and do their jobs. (Vines) was not given a fair chance. Baker removed him from office based on innuendos and hearsay."
Others, who believed in September that they could trust Vines to continue the policies instituted by Goliath Davis III, said they felt Baker made the right choice.
Reactions to Baker's sudden decision were, in some cases, as unexpected as the decision itself. While no one who was interviewed supported Vines' use of the word "orangutan" to describe the actions of a black suspect, many residents -- both black and white -- believe he deserved a second chance.
Others suggested Baker was taking political correctness to a new height or, worse, catering to a small group of outspoken activists led by Omali Yeshitela.
"Well, I guess we might as well just say Omali Yeshitela is mayor and get over with it," said Lorraine Margeson, another resident who first didn't support Vines but later grew to respect him because of his approach to cleaning up crime. "There couldn't have been a more horrible decision for public safety in this city."
Baker said he didn't believe Vines was a racist, but he did think Vines' comment and the effect it had on the community was "adverse and serious."
But several people who represent African-American constituencies in St. Petersburg said it wasn't so much the orangutan comment as it was the context in which they understood it to be uttered.
That it was embedded in comments about how officers could expect to do their jobs without feeling as if their actions were being put under a microscope was troubling.
"I don't think it was just the comment," said Bishop John Copeland, vice president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, an influential group of largely African-American ministers. "It was the management style and the attitude. It hadn't come out to the public, but it was there. There are a lot of people in this community, both black and white, who believe there has been a whole lot of progress made. I don't want to see us go back."
"Going back" was a reference to the tenure of Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger, a controversial St. Petersburg police chief who was at the center of racial polarization in the city a decade ago.
State Rep. Frank Peterman, a Democrat whose district includes St. Petersburg, said it was important to quickly address any such concerns, particularly in the black community.
"A statement like that portends to some degree, a certain mindset," he said. "I am not going to say here and now that Mack Vines is a racist. But I think there are degrees of racism. That is something that needs to be squashed in the very beginning."
Yeshitela said trust was eroding between African-Americans and the police department.
But others -- including several City Council members -- felt Baker should have given Vines another chance to bridge the divide.
"He just appointed him 10 weeks ago and to make this move now, it's like you're invalidating the first major choice you make," said council member Jay Lasita. "That's how it's going to play in the community . . . It was a bad comment, but he deserved to be given the benefit of the doubt and clearly he wasn't given the benefit of the doubt."
At the Police Department, both black and white officers who were interviewed said they believed Baker made the wrong decision.
"I'm extremely disappointed," Officer Mark Carr said. "The morale of the department has just started to go up."
In his short time as chief, Vines made people believe that he would be more active than Davis in rooting out crime -- particularly drug crime.
Though statistics show that the number of drug arrests and investigations really hasn't changed since Vines took over, Steve Plice, president of the Jungle Terrace Civic Association, said he thinks Vines made policy changes that made people nervous.
"I think that orangutan thing was an excuse for more serious objections for what Chief Vines was doing," Plice said. "I think he was gone after because his policies were more aggressive on the drug trade. That is the only thing different than what had gone on in the past."
Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida political science professor, said the public is going to have a hard time digesting the news and figuring out why it was necessary to fire Vines.
"Not only do you not have a pattern, but it was an isolated incident," he said. "It was a word. I guess I'm a little dismayed that you can be fired for a simple slip of the tongue."
James Simmons, president of the Pinellas County Urban League, said it was important for Baker to do what was necessary to avoid any setbacks in race relations.
"We don't need more racial divide or civil disturbances," Simmons said. "We have got to bridge the gap and do better in this city."
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