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Dismissal sparks wave of criticism

There's support in certain corners, but the most vocal reaction to Mayor Rick Baker's decision to fire police Chief Mack Vines takes an angry tone.

By BRYAN GILMER and LEANORA MINAI

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2001


There's support in certain corners, but the most vocal reaction to Mayor Rick Baker's decision to fire police Chief Mack Vines takes an angry tone.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Fired police Chief Mack Vines announced Wednesday he is considering suing the city, while angry St. Petersburg residents rained hundreds of calls and notes on Mayor Rick Baker for dismissing the chief.

"We're certainly not finished," Vines said at a news conference. His attorney will investigate the firing and decide whether to sue, which could take weeks.

City officials said that Baker had the power to fire Vines for no reason at all and that Vines was entitled only to three months of severance pay.

Baker's assistants were busy all day handling telephone calls, faxes and e-mails from city residents, most of whom were angry or disappointed.

Baker fired Vines on Tuesday after an uproar over a comment Vines made two weeks earlier in a meeting with police detectives. Vines had endorsed officers' use of force in cases when a suspect acts like an "orangutan," a comment many thought disparaged the black suspect in the case Vines had just summarized.

Baker decided Vines could not continue as chief because his comment had damaged African-Americans' trust of a police department that has struggled to overcome an adversarial history with black residents. Vines and his attorney do not accept the explanation.

"This is an intolerable situation," said Tampa lawyer Lynn Cole, a former federal prosecutor. "It is unfair, and it sends the wrong message to the community."

Vines said Baker offered him a $51,000 settlement if he agreed not to sue. Vines said he turned down the offer and may seek damages, including reinstatement as chief.

The last St. Petersburg police chief fired was Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger. He had been chief 18 months in 1992 when the acting city manger terminated him, citing racial insensitivity and poor relations with other city officials.

Curtsinger threatened to sue, claiming a conspiracy, and the city settled, paying him $585,000.

City Attorney John Wolfe said Vines' case is different. Curtsinger did not have a contract that spelled out what he was entitled to if fired; Vines did.

Baker spent most of Wednesday out of the public eye. He met for breakfast with Chuck Harmon, the new chief he appointed to replace Vines, then retreated to his suite at City Hall.

There, he called and met with neighborhood leaders and others and tried to explain why his decision was best for the city.

"It's a hard decision, one I wish I had not been put in the position of having to make," he recalled telling people. "I'd like to work with them toward the future."

By 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Baker's assistants had counted more than 105 e-mails, 210 telephone messages and seven faxes since the mayor announced the firing at 2 p.m. Tuesday.

"Since when have you let the opinions of a few rule the town?" wrote someone who signed an e-mail simply, A Voter. "What about the people that think this whole thing is ridiculous and that these complainers have a screw loose . . . When is someone going to give me a better job simply based on the color of my skin, passing over the more qualified candidate?"

An e-mail from Douglas Darland said simply, "I am sorry I voted for you. You have no backbone. Sincerely, Doug the registered voter."

Baker has slept little this week. He sighed deeply and spoke with emotion about how the conflict troubles him.

"It's been hard in the last eight or nine days watching the city I care so much about go through such a difficult time," he said.

He said he reacted so strongly to concerns about Vines' attitude because "it's very important for all people -- all people -- in our community to feel confident that the public safety system works for them and that they can trust the Police Department."

City Council member James Bennett brought Baker a sweet roll and a framed photo of the two of them as a Christmas present just after 10 a.m., saying afterward, "Just a little break in his day. He's a little sad, needs a little cheering up."

Council member John Bryan said he was besieged Tuesday night at a restaurant by patrons upset with Baker.

People said Baker was "allowing the black community to run St. Pete," Bryan recalled, adding that Baker was right to follow his gut. "He said, 'I'm not comfortable with this gentleman working for me,' and he made the decision, as he should have."

Police officers lamented the firing Wednesday and said Vines should sue. Since they have a new boss, the officers would not give their names.

Baker was emotional again Wednesday night as he and Harmon spoke to about 50 members of the Council of Neighborhoods Association. After they left, the neighborhood presidents held a spirited discussion.

Many were outraged by the mayor's decision, and several supported it. Some worried the mayor's decision would hinder crime-fighting. Several said they noticed and liked having more officers in their neighborhoods under Vines.

Someone at the meeting circulated a memo titled, "How to remove the mayor," showing it can be done by a two-thirds vote of council or by a recall of the electors. Baker had no comment on the memo, and it was clear that most CONA members preferred to accept Harmon as chief.

"We need to find a way not to fight him, but to work with him, to make him successful," said Peter Sharp, president of the 31st Street Business Association.

A racially mixed group of about 70 people came to City Hall after 5 p.m. to support Baker at the urging of the local branch of the NAACP.

The group included state Rep. Frank Peterman, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, City Council chairwoman Rene Flowers, religious leaders and representatives of the Chamber of Commerce.

"Remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr.," said Peterman. "The true test of a man is not where he stands in times of confidence and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy. Mr. Mayor, on this, you passed the test."

Before Vines' remark was ever publicized, African-American organizations had said that under Vines, police officers had become more heavy-handed with black residents, behavior previous chief Goliath Davis III took a hard line against.

"The orangutan thing demonstrated he has a real deep-seated characterization of African-Americans and it came out," said the Rev. Manuel Sykes of the Bethel Community Baptist Church.

Demonstrators said they didn't think Vines had grounds for a lawsuit.

"If I was him I'd cut my losses," said Bishop John Copeland, vice president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. "Policing is not what it used to be. It used to be there was a time when they'd laugh downtown when you said something like that. But it's not a laughing matter any more."

-- Times staff writers Leonora LaPeter and Mike Brassfield contributed to this report.

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