St. Petersburg chief walks tightrope
By LEANORA MINAI
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 14, 1998
T. PETERSBURG -- Day 312 of police Chief Goliath Davis' watch over St. Petersburg had all the makings of the horrific trouble that brought him to power in the first place.
At dusk, undercover officers raided a crack house blocks from where racial violence seared St. Petersburg 18 months before. As the bust went down, about 15 black teens gathered and started shouting at the white cops. A few bricks and bottles were thrown.
The officers escaped, but tension remained some two hours later when three white officers responded to a fight near the crack house. Some of the teens who had witnessed the crack arrests showed up. "There's only three of them," they shouted at the cops. "P---sy-ass-cracker. We're gonna get you cracker."
Anxious, one officer pressed his radio's red alarm button: Officer In Trouble.
Within minutes, 100 officers in riot gear created a "command post" at Pinellas Technical Institute. It was the largest show of force since the October 1996 riots.
But the officers didn't move in. They waited for Chief Davis to arrive. Forty five minutes to be exact. When he finally pulled up, Davis didn't send in his troops. He talked with his commanders instead to determine whether such aggressiveness was worth it.
By then, the teens had left.
Crisis averted? Or did a band of rogues learn it's okay to hassle cops?
* * *
Davis walks a daily tightrope.
He has worked hard to soothe a city divided by rioting that followed a white officer's fatal shooting of a young black man.
He rejected a lucrative drug-fighting grant. He supports the right of thousands of young African Americans to gather weekly in city parks, although residents say the parties have gotten out of hand.
And, in a department criticized for racial insensitivity, Davis has sent a message that he won't tolerate officers who bend the law.
But there are others -- some within his department -- who say Davis is a control freak who is soft on crime, especially in black neighborhoods.
On Tuesday, Davis will have been doing the job for a year. His 431-member police force remains in tumult, an organization in transition.
"Right now, we're kind of floating around out there," said Jack Soule, a patrol officer and union president.
Davis, 47, is more visible to the public than his predecessor, Darrel Stephens, and appears more adroit, a natural politician. Born here, he has been widely praised for getting out of the office to meet residents and neighborhood groups.
Inside the department, he hammers three tenets: respect, accountability, integrity. He has followed through by suspending, demoting and firing employees. He has ordered investigations of others.
How has Davis' stern hand played with the rank and file? Few will criticize him publicly. Privately, some say he micromanages to the point that officers are hesitant to make high-pressure, split-second calls for fear of being second-guessed.
What's more, officers say they walk on egg shells when it comes to enforcing the law in the neighborhoods that turned violent a year and a half ago.
By looking at him, though, you would never know Davis has been catching flak.
He is a study in self-confidence.
Asked about complaints from unnamed officers, he says: "I don't respond to ghosts." When asked to assess his first year, he says with a wry smile: "I think everything I've done is right."
* * *
At first, Davis turned down Mayor David Fischer's offer last June to become police chief. He had to think about it.
"My plans had already been laid," he said. "I was going to retire."
After talking with his then-fiancee Teresa Anderson, his mother and his son, Davis accepted the $98,400-a-year job. (That's the most you'll hear about Davis' private life. A father of four, Davis so tried to keep his personal life separate from work that he declined to be interviewed at his home and would not allow his wife to be interviewed for this story.)
Fischer said he picked Davis because he had the credentials, and most importantly, the connections to the neighborhoods most affected by the 1996 riots.
His resume offered hope.
From Rollins College, Davis earned a behavioral science degree with a concentration in sociology. Months after graduating in 1973, he joined the St. Petersburg police force as a public safety agent, investigating arsons and fire deaths.
He worked his way to patrolman, developing a reputation as a no-nonsense cop and earning the nickname "Go." He enrolled in graduate school and earned a master's degree from the University of South Florida and a doctorate from Florida State University. His dissertation: "Work Group Cohesion and Job Stress Among Police Officers."
Davis also teaches, a passion he will pursue when his career with the city ends.
His appointment did not come without baggage.
In the early 1990s, Davis ran afoul of police Chief Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger. Curtsinger, hired from Los Angeles, moved Davis from patrol division manager, a high-profile job, to administrative services, where he was head of training, research and building maintenance. Curtsinger also suspended the department's cultural diversity training. The department grew racially polarized.
Racial slurs began showing up on bathroom walls. "No n----- should have power," somebody scrawled.
Past skeletons remain today.
* * *
As top cop, Davis' first decisions were unpopular. He told officers they could no longer wear shorts or curse on the job.
The no-cussing rule became an issue after an officer confronted an auto-theft suspect and demanded to see his "f---ing hands." A supervisor reprimanded the officer.
Union members oppose the policy, saying officers shouldn't have to worry about what they say during stressful calls.
"If you're in a situation where you got a crime going on, a lot of times you revert back to street language. You use an attention getter; let them know you're serious and mean business," said Soule, the union president.
Davis said his reason for the ban is simple.
"My theme is respect," he said. "I'm emphasizing the fact that it doesn't matter if you're African American, Caucasian, Asian. We owe it to ourselves to respect the dignity of the human condition."
The no-cursing rule earned national attention, including a column by a Chicago Tribune writer who noted the NBA had banned swearing, too.
"If the league has trouble persuading its referees to enforce the no-filthy-language rule," Bob Greene wrote, "there's a police chief down in St. Petersburg who might be available to lend a hand."
* * *
When Davis was an assistant chief, he attended numerous meetings about a program that deployed extra officers in low-income neighborhoods to fight drugs.
Davis was galled when one speaker suggested such police presence should be like an "occupying army."
The program was Weed and Seed.
Last December -- six months into the job -- Davis stunned law enforcement circles by turning away a $100,000 federal grant to "weed" out drugs in the black communities.
Instead, Davis wanted to redistribute the money to treat addictions and "seed" opportunities.
"To the extent we can level the playing field and remove the economic and political barriers, we also can diminish the need for law enforcement," Davis said.
Davis' position angered Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe and Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice. McCabe said drug dealers would think it was okay to work the streets of St. Petersburg. And Rice was prepared to take the money and send his deputies in.
"What I can't understand is why outsiders are meddling in a local issue," Davis told the Times in December. "This is a St. Petersburg community problem, and I didn't invite the sheriff in."
The city finally agreed to accept the $100,000. It will be used in neighborhoods south of Central Avenue, but to eliminate any perceptions the area is being targeted, the city will spend another $100,000 to fight drugs citywide, said Monte Richardson, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa.
Today, Davis dismisses the whole Weed and Seed controversy. "It's old news. It's been resolved."
"To water down Weed and Seed," said Bill Klein, a former mayoral candidate endorsed by the police union in the last election, "is an indication they're soft on drugs."
Citywide drug enforcement is pretty much on pace this year with 1,061 arrests in the first five months compared with 2,712 arrests for all of 1997. In 1996, there were 2,520 arrests.
* * *
"I want to be contacted," Davis tells the sergeant who handed him a news release about Chunky Sunday. "I don't want them to be pointed to the neighborhood association folks."
Given its name for the "chunk" of people who show up each week at Bartlett Park, Chunky Sunday is big talk in St. Petersburg.
* * *
Talk radio host Mark Larsen of WFLA-AM sarcastically calls the chief "Chunky Davis."
Neighbors are tired of the ear-splitting rap music and traffic jams.
"What's good about setting up a training ground for dope smoking, beer drinking and public urination?" Gregory D. Ross wrote in a recent newspaper letter to the editor.
Lorraine Margeson is angry that the city has to pay overtime to manage the crowds. Between March and May, $35,220 has been paid to police officers.
"That is insane to me," said Margeson, a crime watch coordinator. "Here we are spending spare money on crowd control. Why are we detracting from the whole city's need for aggressive crime fighting?"
She said the money would be better spent fighting crack dealers and prostitutes.
"I don't understand why the Police Department and City Council have left it alone," said Robert Dalzell, a 55-year-old small business owner and resident. "I think it's because they're afraid the Uhuru crowd will start a ruckus and that's not good for baseball."
Last year, the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement held a news conference on City Hall's steps, denouncing authorities for denying black residents their right to free assembly in public parks.
"If noise and traffic jams are the problems, then the white people's Dome and boat races at Lake Maggiore would have ended years ago," declared an Uhuru flier.
Uhuru founder Omali Yeshitela said Davis is removing "flashpoints" that could cause racial tension. Interfering with Chunky Sunday would cause tension.
"They're going to run into a profound problem, and that's going to challenge the investments of a lot of white people here," Yeshitela said. "So Chief Davis has been very farsighted in attempting to protect those investments."
Davis maintains that people have a constitutional right to assemble in the parks. Only a handful of people are lawbreakers, not the whole group, he says.
"I think Chief Davis at times tries to be too political and what he needs to do is be chief of police," said Soule, the union president.
To be sure, the chief has handled the issue with a measure of political deftness. As it heated up, he met with neighborhood associations to enlist support for finding alternative sites for the gatherings. He has clashed with the City Council, spending nearly eight hours one April day to wait for his shot to discuss the event. He is the mediator of a resident committee formed to hash out differences between the young adults and neighborhood representatives.
At times, he is a counselor: "Put your patience hat on; we're trying to come up with a solution that both sides of the equation can deal with."
Davis walked into a hostile civic association meeting in April and left to applause. "We can easily criminalize it and declare the parks off limits," he told 50 residents attending a Greater Pinellas Point Civic Association meeting.
"Regardless of how it goes, I'm on the end of the spear. I can tell you we put people in jail all the time. I'm trying to find solutions to our problems other than putting people in jail."
* * *
Davis has been trying to clean house. "Been weedin'," he joked last week.
He launched an investigation of the vice and narcotics unit. Some detectives are being investigated on charges of falsifying time sheets, conduct unbecoming an officer and racial discrimination. Two supervisors have been placed on administrative leave.
Officer David S. Atherton was fired for cursing and striking a black man suspected of throwing a Molotov cocktail at a police cruiser during the 1996 disturbances. The firing was overturned by an arbitrator.
Maj. John Womer, popular among many rank and file officers, was forced to retire last month after 25 years with the department. Davis said Womer had threatened him.
Just last week, patrol Sgt. Karen Lea was demoted to the rank of officer and was suspended for 30 days. Supervisors said she made hostile remarks about a manager, including profane comments regarding sexual orientation.
Perhaps the greatest scrutiny came last month.
An officer was counseled for arresting two black teens who were driving a stolen car. Officer Troy Turner pulled the teens over on a "hunch." The car was stolen, but in the police business, acting on hunches alone is against the law. State prosecutors, not police, tossed out the case.
A flurry of letters flowed into Mayor Fischer's mailbox. "You are a city afraid of your residents," wrote Palm Harbor resident Lisa Hodges.
August Stoeffler was so mad that he withheld his $10 donation to the Florida Police Foundation. "I think he's protecting the blacks, and he doesn't want to make any waves down there," he said.
Davis said accusations like that are "ludicrous."
"There's small-minded people in this world," he said.
Officers say some of the discipline sends the impression the department is on the run, "backing down in every situation," said Officer Ron Adams, a 24-year veteran.
"If I was a suspect, I would say we got them where we want them," Adams said. "From an officer's point, that's a bad signal because they're going to know they can attack us."
One officer, though, said that at least with Davis there are no surprises.
"Out of almost 24 years I've been here," said Officer Mike Kepto, "Davis is probably the best chief I have seen or known. With the other chiefs, you never knew where they stood on issues. With Davis, you know where that line is."
Davis said he will not tolerate officers who break the law to enforce the law.
"You many not like it, but criminals also have rights," he said. "I won't preside over a police department that violates individuals' rights."
The Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church, said Davis is showing that following procedure is as important as making arrests.
"It is clear that the honeymoon is over," Sykes said. "I think that the adoration is over, once he showed that he would punish officers, particularly white officers involved with black males. He has shown that he is not going to yield to the type of police pressure that has been asserted in the past and present."
* * *
It is a Friday, a full schedule for the chief. He is at the office by 5:30 a.m. and has back-to-back meetings and lunch with union president Soule.
His first engagement is meeting the mayor and other city leaders downtown about economic revitalization.
"There he is!" a woman shouts when Davis walks through the door. She wraps her arms around him.
During the meeting, Davis is a champion for community service. He encourages people to volunteer and mentor kids.
"It's going to make the quality of life in the whole city better and be the key to turning things around," Davis told the group.
He had a mentor, one of the first black men to join the city's all-white police force.
"Junior," Freddie Lee Crawford told Davis in 1969, "you may not see much movement now, but things are opening up for Negro police officers."
The meeting is over now, and it's time for lunch with Soule. The two -- Soule in his green and white uniform and Davis in his suit -- talk shop. The PBA has long been at odds with past police regimes, particularly Davis' predecessor.
Overall, Soule said he gives Davis' first year a C grade, which,
for a PBA guy, isn't too bad. "If I had to give him a grade in
effort to work and talk with the PBA, I'd give him an A."