Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Tensions high between black, white officers in St. Petersburg Police Department

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin met with roughly 125 black police officers, city activists and clergy members behind closed doors late Tuesday to discuss widespread racial turmoil in the St. Petersburg Police Department. Tensions ran high during the 90-minute meeting held at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church on 20th Street S.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times (2013)

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin met with roughly 125 black police officers, city activists and clergy members behind closed doors late Tuesday to discuss widespread racial turmoil in the St. Petersburg Police Department. Tensions ran high during the 90-minute meeting held at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church on 20th Street S.

ST. PETERSBURG — The decades-old strain between the black community and the Police Department has permeated the agency's rank-and-file.

Roughly 125 black police officers, city activists and clergy members met behind closed doors late Tuesday with Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin to discuss widespread racial turmoil. Tensions ran high during the 90-minute meeting held at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church on 20th Street S.

The group asked the city to halt five promotions, likely all white officers, planned for next month and asked for an outside agency to investigate the department's inequities against black officers.

"It's not about individuals," Assistant Chief Luke Williams told the group. "It's about relationships in the community."

While meeting leaders asked the media to leave and sit outside so the group could talk openly, reporters from the Tampa Bay Times and the Weekly Challenger could hear every word through a collapsible wall dividing the room and the sitting area.

Those attending told Tomalin that they have no faith in the white leaders of the department. After hearing complaints for about 20 minutes, Tomalin said she and Mayor Rick Kriseman would not intervene.

"Like it or not, we have a person serving as interim chief," Tomalin said, referring to interim Chief David DeKay. "The mayor is not at all interested in undermining his authority."

The crowd wasn't pacified by her response.

With a nationwide search under way for a new police chief, the department is fractured into two camps behind the top internal candidates: Williams and Assistant Chief Melanie Bevan.

Williams has the support of fellow black officers. Many on Tuesday accused Bevan of running the department while working behind the scenes to win union support. She declined to comment Wednesday.

Kriseman also would not comment on the issues Wednesday. "At this point in time, I'm gathering all the facts," he said. "I'm not prepared to respond."

The group also said they worried that the internal strife could keep top candidates from applying for the post. Many of the messages they hammered in Tuesday were common refrains in last fall's mayor's race, including:

• Lack of communication and disregard for high-ranking African-Americans in the department. Black officers believe the chain of command is broken and accused white leaders of intentionally hiding information to ostracize and back-stab them.

• Black officers say they have no way up the ladder. They accused white leaders of passing over African-Americans to promote union activists who want to hold power. The group wants Kriseman to shelve next month's promotions until a new chief takes over.

• Black officers believe they are held to different standards by the brass and face more scrutiny when discipline is issued. They also say leaders react faster when complaints are made against black officers.

Since taking office in January, Kriseman kept a pledge to tighten the pursuit policy expanded under former Mayor Bill Foster. The union opposed the change, but residents applauded.

A union leader declined to comment on the group's issues Wednesday but has repeatedly said the union doesn't have a favorite candidate and only wants a new chief.

Last month, DeKay announced that the agency would appoint four new sergeants and a lieutenant in April. More would follow once a new chief is selected, the memo said.

With four sergeant slots available, the chief can look at five candidates for each job. Of the 36 eligible, the highest African-American ranked 22nd. The other two were ranked 30th and 32nd.

For one lieutenant spot, the highest-ranking black officer was fifth.

"What they're trying to do is the PBA (union) is trying to stack the deck," a man told Tomalin. "This isn't our first rodeo."

"We expect to be treated equally throughout the process," an officer shouted.

The crowd clapped.

In the recent election, the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association was among Foster's biggest supporters, pouring money into his campaign and providing foot soldiers to canvass streets for votes.

Several people reminded Tomalin on Tuesday that the black community helped put Kriseman in City Hall.

"You should inform the mayor that we need an independent, outside investigation of the Police Department," a man told Tomalin. "They don't have the best intention of African-Americans."

She cautioned that such an investigation could halt the promotions and chief search.

Tomalin reassured the group that Kriseman cares about the problems, but she needed to hear more specific examples. No one has more invested in St. Petersburg than she and Kriseman, Tomalin added.

One man warned that Kriseman could lose support in neighborhoods south of Central Avenue if he doesn't quell the flaring tensions. "We ask Kriseman to not turn his back on us," the man said. "Right now it seems like it didn't matter."

Tomalin said the allegations of unfairness surrounding the testing and selection process need scrutiny from city officials. "I speak for the mayor. I'm the deputy mayor," she said, later noting politics wasn't a factor. "These promotions will not happen."

The tension subsided.

After the meeting, Tomalin said that the community has "some serious needs to work on" and that she has the authority to halt the promotions without input from Kriseman or DeKay.

On Wednesday afternoon, DeKay said he had not talked to Tomalin, but said the group's allegations will be taken seriously by the department.

"We're aware of the issues," he said. "We're sorting through them. There will be action taken."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459.

Comparing

the numbers

The racial breakdown of sworn officers in the St. Petersburg Police Department:

Total officers as of

Feb.
Officers in

upper ranks*
White40059
Black75 17
Hispanic371
Asian120
Indian41

* Sergeant or above

Source: St. Petersburg police

Tensions high between black, white officers in St. Petersburg Police Department 03/12/14 [Last modified: Thursday, March 13, 2014 12:17am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Winner and loser of the week in Florida politics

    Blogs

    Winner of the week 1: 'Liquor wall’ proponents. Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of a bill to allow Walmart, Target and other big box stores to sell liquor was a victory for an array of groups, from smaller merchants and Publix (which has stand-alone booze shops near its stores) to those who feel the hard stuff …

  2. Review / photos: Sunset Music Festival brings Major Lazer, safety upgrades to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa

    Blogs

    Somewhere beyond the barricades and mountainous LED stages of the Sunset Music Festival, there had to be worry. There had to thousands of parents in parking lots and empty kitchens, anxiously distracting their minds, every now and then checking their phones.

    Major Lazer headlined the Sunset Music Festival on May 27, 2017 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
  3. 24-year-old man charged with murder in shooting at Andrea Cove Motel

    LARGO — Pinellas sheriff's officers arrested a 24-year-old transient man Saturday in connection with a homicide at the Andrea Cove Motel in unincorporated Largo.

  4. Photo gallery: Calvary Christian rolls to state title

    Blogs

    View a gallery of images from Calvary Christian's defeat of Pensacola Catholic 11-1 in six innings Saturday night at Hammond Stadium in Ft. Myers for the Class 4A title.

    Calvary Christian players circle up on the field before the FHSAA class 4A baseball championship against Pensacola Catholic on Friday May 27, 2017 at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla. Calvary scored 6 runs in the first inning, and had 7 hits.
  5. Two girls found safe after being reported missing in New Port Richey

    UPDATE: Both girls were found safe Saturday night, police said.