When Darrel Stephens got word that one of his officers had shot dead an unarmed black teenager, he knew he'd better hit the streets. He'd been police chief just three years, but he had quickly learned that St. Petersburg was anything but sleepy, that racial tension surged through sections of the city.
He bolted to the scene where a crowd, disenfranchised and enraged, was growing by the minute. As police took measurements and photographs, he walked among the residents, he recalls now, and was joined by City Council members and neighborhood leaders, all trying to keep the peace.
But the rage was growing. Someone hurled a bottle at police. Then came a rock.
Stephens called for crowd control equipment and protective gear for his officers. But he stayed put, pleading for peace.
"Just as we were towing away the car, somebody tossed a Molotov cocktail under a police car, or news van, and the news van was burned," he said. "It was beginning to work until the fire. That just set off the crowd surging and moving off in different directions."
That pivotal moment, from calm to chaos, set off a night of upheaval in St. Petersburg on Oct. 24 and 25, 1996, and then again the next month, when a grand jury decided the officer acted in self-defense. Two police officers were shot, two firefighters injured. Buildings were burned. Bystanders were attacked.
The unrest shares similarities with scenes playing out in Ferguson, Mo., where protests of a police shooting of an unarmed black man have continued for nearly two weeks.
But Stephens, 67, who is now executive director of Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, draws a distinction between the two events. Besides being short-lived bursts of violence and arson, the St. Petersburg incidents weren't well-formed protests, like those in Ferguson that continue to draw people from around the country.
"This was kind of a spontaneous thing that occurred at the scene of the shooting," he said. "They weren't out protesting."
Another difference is the use in Ferguson of military-style accessories and equipment like armored vehicles and sniper rifles, he said. St. Petersburg police officers continued routine patrols in shorts and typical uniforms, and they were fired upon sporadically by people in dark alleys and hiding places.
"You can look on TV and see that they have a lot better equipment than we had in St. Petersburg," said Stephens. But that equipment can be a double-edged sword, he said, because of the message it sends.
"That kind of equipment needs to be used in situations where there's gunfire," he said. "That equipment is used in most respects to rescue people under fire. But on a typical protest, there's no reason to have that out in front. Have it in reserve and available if you need it."
He hesitates to say how he'd handle the situation in Ferguson because he doesn't know all the nuances. But one lesson he learned here in 1996: "I know that until they're able to get to the point where the violence and conflicts resides, that's got to come to an end before you can work through the dialogue … to develop stronger relationships between the police and the community."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at (727)893-8650 or [email protected] Follow him @gangrey.