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 [email protected] or (727) 893-8459.