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Many faces could mask a killer's potential


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 21, 1998

A guy comes careening up to the St. Petersburg Police Deparment on Central Avenue, jerks his Mustang to a stop on the sidewalk and drags his wife inside. Under his arm he has a box.

He is raving. He is losing his job. It's a conspiracy. His wife is part of it.

Kay M. Shelley, an 18-year veteran of the police force, calmly asks: What's in the box?

It is a .45-caliber pistol.

"Can you do me a favor," she says soothingly, "and just set that up on the counter here?" Eventually the guy does.

Another day, Shelley is walking into the station when a social worker approaches her with a worried look and says, "Can you help me out?" The social worker points to a guy sitting quietly in a chair, waiting.

The guy had come down to be fingerprinted and photographed so he could get his benefits. But a routine search shows he has an outstanding warrant for violation of parole for . . .

Homicide. He surrenders quietly.

Shelley smiles as she tells me about it. We are sitting in a couple of police golf carts in downtown St. Petersburg on Wednesday afternoon. She is wearing a strip of black tape over her badge.

Shelley and her supervisor, Sgt. Dennis Simmons, tell me about the cast of characters they deal with. There is George, a little guy who hates cops with a passion. He has been arrested something like 130 times. He has a special dislike of Shelley and has spat on her, tried to hit her, attacked her cart.

There is the 350-pound guy who has to be squirted with pepper spray and wrestled to the ground each time he gets drunk. He currently is doing 90 days for assaulting a law enforcement officer. "But he'll be back," Simmons says.

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They seem predictable enough. Not harmless, but not murderous either. So far. You never know.

Shelly talks about being called because a man is threatening suicide in his room near downtown. She gets to the door, which is open, but she does not go in until her backup arrives. This was right after another St. Petersburg officer shot and killed a mentally ill man.

"I'm standing there and he's eyeing my gun, and saying what he would do if he had it," Shelley says. She automatically cupped her hand over her holster, protecting it, as she was trained.

"That's getting to be a big thing," Simmons, a 29-year veteran, says about threatened suicides. "They actually want the police to do it for them."

Simmons and Shelley agree that people who get arrested a lot these days know as much or more about police technique as the police. Shelley shows how some prison inmates attempt to break the chain on a pair of handcuffs.

But why go to that trouble, when handcuff keys -- simple metal pegs -- are common? The officers say that suspects have them stashed in their belts, in various pockets, sometimes in their cheeks. "If they've got a handcuff key on them," Simmons says, "they can get to it."

It is a sunny, peaceful afternoon. Passing motorists stop for directions. The officers chat easily, trading the names of various nuts, maniacs and plain old drunks, as if they were talking about family. I know some of the names they talk about. The three of us agree that if certain of these people went ballistic tomorrow, we would not be surprised. But what can you do? Arrest them in advance, for being nutbags?

"There are people like that all over," Simmons says philosophically. "They slip through the cracks, and they're walking around on the street."

You can't think of every single person you deal with as a threat to your life, Simmons says. "You'll go crazy." You have to rely on your training above all else. That is what it is for.

I ask them: How can you be sure that one day you won't ease up at exactly the wrong second?

"I can't," Simmons says.

"I can't," Shelley says.

We sit there quietly for a minute.

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