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Black St. Petersburg officers share their experiences amid allegations of racism

ST. PETERSBURG — Before Lenard Cox hunts drunken drivers on city streets, the African-American patrolman meets with a diverse squad of Jewish, Albanian and white officers.

Cox, 31, said he doesn't see a department rife with racial tension or an agency that bases promotions on skin color.

He was one of five black police officers who agreed to speak to the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday to either refute or support accusations that a disparity exists between the promotions and treatment of black and white officers within the department.

Mayor Rick Kriseman, who was in Washington, D.C., on Thursday for an education conference, released a statement affirming the deputy mayor's decision Tuesday to halt April police promotions after meeting with 125 black officers, city activists and clergy members.

The city will seek an outside auditing firm to review the department's promotion process.

"Neither misconduct nor baseless allegations will be tolerated by my administration," Kriseman said.

In the officers' interviews with the Times, the younger ones said they didn't believe such tensions exist, while their older colleagues talked about years of disrespect and distrust from senior white officers.

"Being a minority, it's kind of shocking," said Cox, a representative of Suncoast Police Benevolent Association and an eight-year officer. "I'm here four days out of the week. I don't see the racial tension. I wonder where it is."

"I've never seen racial tension in my 9½ years," said Officer Tiffany Crosby, noting that some officers don't get along based on personalities and work ethic. "It has nothing to do with the color of your skin."

Union members were unhappy with the mayor's decision to halt the promotions.

At Tuesday's meeting with Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, the group of police, activists and clergy requested the promotions be halted and asked for an outside agency to investigate inequities against black officers.

At the end of the meeting, Tomalin agreed to halt April's promotions so officials can look into allegations of unfairness surrounding the testing and selection process.

Neither Cox nor Crosby, 33, was invited to the meeting. They were surprised to learn of it.

"It seems like it was hush hush and people have something to hide," Crosby said, adding, "our morale is down. A lot of police officers want to know where this is coming from."

Lt. Nataly Patterson, 51, said she frequently witnesses racism from white employees, including leaders.

The problems have been "more prevalent in the last four years," she said, blaming weak leadership.

The 21-year agency veteran gave this example: In November, a white lieutenant walked into a morning meeting and mimicked a young, black male walking down the street. The "slow, rhythmic gait" made it appear he had a disdain for African-Americans, Patterson said. She warned him and filed a complaint with Internal Affairs.

"At least I don't wear my pants below my a- -," she recalled him saying.

With four sergeant slots available, no African-American is ranked in the top 20 on the eligibility list. For one lieutenant spot, the highest-ranking black officer is fifth. The chief can look at five candidates for each job, meaning he can consider the top 20 on the sergeant list and the top five on the lieutenant list.

To get on the list, officers take a written and oral exam administered by the city's Human Resource workers. The scores are combined for a final ranking, which is good for two years.

Police leaders play no role in administering the test, said Interim Human Resources director Chris Guella, adding, "It's a very thorough process and a number of checks and balances are in place."

Cox said he attended tutoring sessions with white and black officers before the January test. He didn't score high enough to make the eligibility list

"The promotion process goes smoothly," Cox said. "I didn't see any funny stuff."

But longtime Sgt. Cynthia Davis believes race has prevented her from becoming a lieutenant.

The 19-year officer said she reluctantly became the department's recruiter in 2004 at the urging of former Chief Chuck Harmon. She feared the position would hinder her upward mobility, but Harmon assured her it wouldn't.

In 2010, Davis said she sought the rank of lieutenant and major after placing fourth on a 2009 exam. During a meeting with Harmon, Davis said the former chief said he wondered how the police union would react to her promotion. The question, she said, left her speechless.

She said she placed third on the lieutenant's test again in 2011 but didn't move up.

After colleagues were promoted, Davis said she moved up to first on the 2009 list and second on the 2011 list.

While there is now one opening for a lieutenant, she is ranked 11th. Davis said she believes Harmon wanted to promote her, but the police union knows she doesn't tolerate wrongdoing.

"I'm devastated," said Davis, 50. "All I know is hard work. I trusted the system; it failed me. I don't play by the union's rule book."

Maj. Hope Crews, head of the youth resources division, said race hasn't stopped her from climbing the ladder — but she has seen unfairness.

The nearly 27-year veteran said she recently investigated a black officer in her unit for being discourteous. The facts did not show the officer violated rules, but she said Interim Chief Dave DeKay wasn't satisfied.

He ordered more reviews, but Crews, 50, said the results didn't change. She asked Internal Affairs officers to examine the complaint, but even they couldn't find any violations.

DeKay admonished her for asking others to review the case, she added. The chief then moved the officer to another unit.

"Things like that make you think it's a black-and-white issue," she said. "For me, it's just blatant disrespect."

Neither Harmon nor DeKay could be reached for comment.

Even with the recent turmoil, changes are coming. A nationwide search is under way for a new chief.

The rank-and-file is split into camps behind two internal candidates: Assistant Chiefs Luke Williams, who is black, and Melanie Bevan, who is white.

While the tension brews, many fingers are being pointed at the police union.

Detective Mark Marland, the union leader, scoffed at the accusations and said the strife appears to come from a small group.

"We don't have any tensions here," Marland said. "We all work together here without any issues."

Black St. Petersburg officers share their experiences amid allegations of racism 03/13/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 14, 2014 3:45pm]
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