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With mayor's weak choice, city's racial rift widens

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 20, 2001


Mack Vines was not brought down by a poorly chosen word.

St. Pete's police chief was done in by a rumor.

I am relying on Vines' own description of what he said earlier this month when he went before a group of St. Petersburg cops to talk about discipline.

He was talking about how to take down a suspect, one who fought as hard, Vines said, as an orangutan.

He never mentioned the suspect's race, or a name.

If any cop was offended by Vines' presentation, not a word was said then.

But some cops thought he was talking about the arrest of a man named Willie Smiley last April.

On the streets in black neighborhoods, these facts picked up steam, and suddenly the word among some upset residents was that Vines had called a black suspect an orangutan.

More steam rose. Some black people believed Vines, who is white, couldn't be trusted to be as fair to them, as his predecessor, Goliath Davis, who is black. They had no proof, just fears.

If St. Petersburg's mayor, Rick Baker, had the nerve, he'd have taken this head on. For something has to be done to break the cycle of racial politics that cuts both ways in St. Petersburg.

The mayor should have explained publicly what Vines said and what he didn't say.

And he should have stood beside Vines.

And he should have taken the heat.

This mayor is so scared he even ran from himself. He admitted even he didn't think that Vines had made a racial remark.

What? Does that make Baker a racist, too?

The mayor also acted with complete disregard for the other man who -- if Vines' critics were right -- figures in this story.

His name is Willie E. Smiley and he has spent his adult life as a crook. He has a record of 31 arrests that began when he was 18. Burglary. Aggravated assault with a gun. Resisting arrest. Cocaine dealing.

The latest arrest, last April, set in motion the events that ended with Vines' firing.

Smiley was booked on eight charges of drug dealing. He also rammed a police car with his own, and then threw his arms and legs around the steering wheel to keep the cops from taking him in.

Smiley has moxie. He later complained officers used excessive force to arrest him.

The department tossed the complaint out in November, and soon after Smiley pleaded guilty to all eight charges against him.

He will be sentenced in mid February.

I heard Smiley say on TV something about how Vines' remark about an orangutan hurt him. I wonder if Smiley once in his life on the street ever pondered the hurt he inflicted in the neighborhoods where he has plied his drug trade.

Smiley has been in and out of jail. The system has given him chance after chance.

The chief of police -- who had a record of improving the racial climate in Dallas and in his last go-round in St. Petersburg -- gets only one.

It's divisiveness, loud and clear.

A middle ground has got to be struck. This isn't just an issue between the St. Petersburg Police Department and the city's black neighborhoods. It's about how blacks and whites in the city live together.

How do you create trust when a man who is thought to have made a mistake gets no second chance? How do you expect many whites to accept this? If they disagree with the mayor's decision, will they be simply be dismissed as bigots, too?

If that's true, then St. Petersburg is beyond hope.

Vines' lawyer, Lynn Cole of Tampa, hinted Wednesday that her client will sue the city. Vines had a three-year contract.

Think of it: a lawsuit, costing thousands in public money, over one word.

Think of it and roll your eyes. What else can you do?

You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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