Tuesday, November 20, 2018
News Roundup

At City Hall, interns get first lessons on how government works

ST. PETERSBURG — Zechariah Wigfall had watched the news reports of police violence. He felt it creeping closer.

That’s why the 14-year-old, flanked by seven other teens, stood before St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway on a late June morning and asked, after nervously shifting from foot to foot, "How do you feel about body cameras?"

Zechariah and his peers were three weeks into their "Summer at City Hall" — a pilot internship program — when they filed into the chief’s office.

The technology — worn by on-duty officers and meant to bolster accountability — has been widely adopted across Florida but not in Tampa Bay’s largest departments. Mayor Rick Kriseman opposes the little black boxes. Holloway has been studying them for years.

The teenagers thought their visit would be the first step in drafting a proposal to see city officers equipped with cameras.

Then the chief answered Zechariah with his own question: How many of his rights was he willing to give up?

• • •

A week earlier, the interns had gathered around a table in City Hall. Empty pizza boxes sat stacked on a counter nearby and on the wall hung a poster-sized sheet of paper branded "Big Ideas." From that list, they had picked their topic for the summer, the goal being to "draft a proposed ordinance or propose an item to fund in the budget," according to the program’s brochure.

Fifteen-year-old Kyla Martin, like the others, had signed up to participate because she was curious about local government and wanted to get more involved.

"As a kid, you really don’t know what’s going on in your city," said Lauryn Latimer, 17. "This is like an eye-opener."

They didn’t want to feel clueless if, as adults, they had an issue the city could address. Or hopeless, if officials made decisions that impacted their lives.

Like body cameras.

At the table that afternoon, the teens agreed that St. Petersburg has had relatively few issues when compared to police forces nationwide. And the kids — all but one of whom are black — said they had never felt discriminated against by police. But incidents elsewhere have weighed on their minds.

"You don’t really know where it could happen," Lauryn said.

"Or where it could happen next," said Chase Moore, also 17.

Why not adopt the devices, they figured. Everyone — police and citizens — could benefit, said Lorenzo Wigfall, Zechariah’s 17-year-old brother.

Councilman Steve Kornell — who organized the program — warned the teens that police here have strong feelings about body cameras. But the group seemed optimistic.

"At least voicing our opinion and allowing it to be heard creates a conversation," Kyla said.

• • •

Their tour at the St. Petersburg Police Department had begun around 9 a.m.

A spokeswoman led the teens through the dispatch and 911 call center, then they headed underground, where the department houses evidence. The spokeswoman warned them it would smell funky — read: like marijuana — and the teens cackled. "We just saw all your teeth," Lauryn said to Lorenzo.

In the pungent basement, an officer showed them freezers filled with blood, urine and other DNA evidence, then turned his attention to two massive safes, each guarding money or jewelry. He later directed them to an area that looked like the stacks of a college library — more evidence, including oddball tools used in violent crimes: swords and bats and brooms, even a fishing rod.

About 25 minutes later, the teens squeezed together for a group photo. Laughs echoed in the stairwell as they made their way back to the surface.

• • •

The interns met with Holloway a short time later.

"You like your privacy?" he asked Zechariah. The chief turned in his chair toward the teens lined up along the room’s windows. At the table around him sat his executive staff.

"Mhm," the teenager replied.

Body camera footage can be obtained by anyone, Holloway said. He laid out a hypothetical: If an officer with a camera happened to walk up to any of the teens as they discussed something private, that conversation could become part of the public record. The cameras the department is studying are always rolling, he said, but only activate when officers draw their guns. Then the devices rewind 30 seconds and start recording.

The chief said he doesn’t oppose body cameras but doesn’t believe they will deter shootings. Building trust between officers and the community is more important, he said.

Zechariah said the cameras might capture other forms of violence from officers.

Holloway stood up and told Zechariah to come closer. Then the chief drew nearer and held him by the forearms.

"So what’s that showing?" he asked, referencing the imaginary camera that would have been recording Zechariah’s chest.

"Nothing," the boy said, and Holloway let go.

• • •

Two weeks later, Zechariah and Lorenzo were still thinking about the meeting with the chief.

Zechariah felt Holloway maybe had a point.

His brother disagreed.

"That’s just proving that you can still get away with stuff," he said. "With police brutality."

At the station, Lorenzo had wanted to challenge the chief but said nothing to be polite. Other interns came away feeling as if Holloway had listened but not really heard them.

Lorenzo is a rising senior at St. Petersburg High, Zechariah a rising freshman at Lakewood. Lorenzo is looking at a military career. Zechariah plans to be a lawyer.

The brothers said they’ve never had issues with the police. Their grandfather — the Rev. Lorenzo Pollard of Bay Vista Church of Christ, which two of the other interns attend — recalled an encounter a few years ago at Seminole Park. The boys were exercising when a police cruiser pulled up.

"What does this guy want?" Pollard thought as the officer approached. "We’re not doing anything."

But the officer was friendly, only wanting to know what the boys were training for.

Zechariah plays basketball in the Police Athletic League of St. Petersburg; his coaches are cops, and he trusts them. Does he want to see them wearing body cameras?

Maybe.

"The thing is, you don’t know how people are going to react in certain situations," he said.

The brothers returned to the idea of using only gun-activated cameras.

"I think it should always be on," Lorenzo said.

That day, they weren’t sure whether their group would move forward on the cameras. City Hall staffers had told them they had lots of options for their final presentations.

They could tell council members what they learned this summer.

Or suggest a small fix, like making it illegal to litter cigarette butts.

• • •

When the time came to go before the City Council, Kornell tried to reassure the teens.

"Don’t be nervous, you’re going to be fine," he said with a smile. "And the great thing is, there’s a whole room full of people."

Soon came a staffer’s voice at the door: "You guys need to go. You’ll be great."

Zechariah looked much older in his green and blue plaid suit. Minutes later, he told city officials about the visit to the police department, about how they’d talked to Holloway and his team about their new station and efforts to increase community policing. They also discussed body cameras and received a breakdown from the chief on how they work, he said. He spoke with his eyes trained on his notes, shifting his weight from foot to foot. He thanked his audience and smiled.

What Zechariah didn’t mention was that they had learned about bureaucracy and agendas, about how difficult it is to wrangle support on something like body cameras. How they decided not to draft an ordinance. Even still, hanging out in a back office after five presentations, they felt good.

"It’s a process," said Kyla, one of those who spoke to the council.

"I would rather have it take a long time and be correct than have them try to put it fast and be incorrect," said Joseph McCrea, 16.

Most of the speakers had been jittery before they took to the lectern. The crowd made Sydni Bostick, 17, and Alex Tewell, 16, nervous.

They were glad it was over — the presentations and the internship. But they agreed that they learned from the experience.

"Can we come back next year?" Kyla asked.

Contact Justin Trombly at [email protected] Follow @JustinTrombly.

     
       
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