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Support flows for officers' families


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 30, 1998

TAMPA -- From the smallest gesture -- a thank-you, a stranger's hug, a Beanie Baby for the daughter of a murdered detective -- to the largest cash donation, last week's rush of community support has overwhelmed the Tampa Police Department.

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"In 25 years here, we have been through a lot, and I've never, ever seen support from the community such as we saw last week," Chief Bennie Holder said Friday. "I just can't say thank you enough."

The Police Benevolent Association has received more than $25,000 for the families of Detectives Randy Bell and Ricky Childers, who were shot dead May 19 by a suspect they had taken into custody.

The Gold Shield Foundation, created in 1981 by George Steinbrenner, expects to raise another $125,000 to $150,000 for a fund to pay burial and college expenses for the families of Bell, Childers, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James B. Crooks and other slain Tampa Bay area officers.

The sympathy, especially the public turnout along the route to the cemetery, surprised officers who spend much of their working lives seeing people at their worst.

"I was absolutely shocked by the way the community reacted to this," said Jim Thompson, president of the PBA, the union for about 1,000 Tampa officers.

The reaction, however, reflects more than the depth of the tragedy. It also highlights changes that shaped the context in which the shootings took place. For example, crime in Tampa is down, and seeing live television coverage as the chase for gunman Hank Earl Carr unfolded was a shocking contrast to the city's reigning optimism.

Perhaps more important, the relationship between the Police Department and the city it serves has improved dramatically.

"Without a doubt, I would say that the relationship in the last five years between law enforcement and the community has improved a thousand-fold," Holder said. "Ten years ago, I don't know if you would have seen this kind of support."

In fact, that support didn't exist 10 years ago when 25-year-old Officer Porfirio Soto Jr. was shot and killed by a man he was trying to arrest. In the weeks after the Dec. 30, 1988, murder, some Hillsborough County residents wrote letters to the editor criticizing the police. One even asked whether it would have been "more appropriate" for other police agencies simply to write a check to the PBA rather than send the 1,800 officers who attended Soto's funeral.

At the time, the department's relations with black residents also were troubled. About two years before Soto died, five men, four of them black, died in confrontations with police. The resulting unrest and tension prompted the city to bring in the Police Foundation, a non-profit law enforcement research center in Washington, D.C.

"In those days, we tapped into a lot of hostility and negativism on the part of the public toward the police," said foundation president Hubert Williams.

The city carried out nearly all of the foundation's 37 recommendations, including computerizing citizen complaints and improving training on the use of deadly force.

Other changes came later. Although former Mayor Sandy Freedman's administration increased the number of sworn officers and officers' starting salaries, she and police remained at odds.

The reasons for the strain included Freedman's decision to do away with take-home cars and a perception among officers that their needs were often ignored.

That changed in April 1995, when Dick Greco became mayor.

"Everything I hear from officers -- and I hear a lot -- is that morale is also up because of the good feelings about the current administration," said Vincent Skotko, the Police Department's psychologist since 1983.

Skotko said community policing "has brought the police closer to the community, so I don't think it should be a surprise that the community is closer to the police."

But he said the goodwill isn't entirely new. In 1995, hundreds of people donated blood when officers Kevin Howell and Mike Vigil were shot and critically wounded.

Unlike previous police shootings, however, last week's tragedy occurred in the middle of the day, and thousands of Tampa Bay households watched coverage of the events on live television.

"There's no question that real-time coverage makes you a participant, and becoming a participant makes you care more," said Joe Saltzman, a former CBS newsman and journalism professor at the University of Southern California.

Greco told reporters Friday that the fact that they knew the detectives "showed on your faces."

By last Saturday, "it was like you were burying a member of your own family," Greco said. "Basically, everyone lived this story."

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