ST. PETERSBURG — Horace Nero existed amid the most violent crime in St. Petersburg.
He patrolled the streets, breaking up fights and arresting 20 people at a time. He had shirts torn from his back. Once, a thief fired a gun at his chin — the bullet narrowly missed.
He faced accusations of superiority from blacks and inferiority from whites.
He was a second class citizen in the very city he served. As a black officer, he couldn't arrest white people. He couldn't move up the ladder.
He was half a cop.
One day, he found courage among friends to ask a question:
• • •
Sgt. Horace Nero, a 40-year St. Petersburg police veteran, died Tuesday of a heart attack at 71.
He belonged to a group of police officers called the Courageous 12. Together, they sued the city of St. Petersburg in 1966 to end Police Department segregation.
Though they were friends with many white officers, the black officers had separate police cruisers, water fountains and lockers. They couldn't train to learn traffic duty or administration. They couldn't patrol the whole city.
"We tried to do the best we could before the suit came up," said Adam Baker, a member of the Courageous 12. "We were struggling with this old adage of right and wrong. Not what was legal and illegal. What's right and what's wrong. We finally determined that the system was using us as a buffer."
They asked for a group meeting with the chief. When that failed, they took out a bank loan to pay lawyers. They sued.
After a three-year legal battle, their rights improved. The case didn't get much attention then, but it came to be known as groundbreaking over the years. The men were honored time and time again. In 2007, local high school students even wrote a play about the 12.
"He was tickled to death," said Leon Jackson, one of the 12. "After we were honored, we had meetings, and he was the first man there waiting to discuss it."
• • •
Sgt. Nero grew up alongside most of the Courageous 12 in south St. Petersburg, in an era where streets marked battle lines and territorialism reigned.
In junior high, he butted heads with guys from other sides of town. At Gibbs High, they played football together. Tension gave way to respect.
Sgt. Nero had sense beyond his years.
"He was more mature," said Courageous 12 member James King, 71. "We were more childlike. He took everything sincerely."
He let his views fly.
"Horace was not an introvert. He was vocal if he didn't like you," said Baker, 71. "One of the things that most of us liked about him was, he was opinionated. If he were on the debate team, you'd love Horace because you couldn't move him off a point."
As police, they hit the streets where they lived, always riding two to a car for safety.
Their personalities meshed into a powerful force. While some flew off the handle in the face of extreme insult, Sgt. Nero reeled them in with his calm personality.
He broke up crimes with words.
"He was very, very good in talking things out with people," said Jackson, 67. "I never saw that man use his night stick in the time that I knew him. He gained a lot of respect in the community."
He was meticulous at filling out arrest reports, rife with long words some of high ranking officers didn't understand.
After shifts, when some officers stopped at bars, he went straight home to his wife and daughter.
• • •
Six of the Courageous 12 are still alive. In their time, they earned reputations as troublemakers, then trailblazers, then legends.
Some faded off the force, but they all stayed close.
Sgt. Nero stayed for 40 years.
"Horace is one of the few of us that stayed there and did something," said Baker. "Horace stayed there and fought the hierocracy all the way through. He gave strength and direction and some relevance from the past."
A reminder of right and wrong.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.