ST. PETERSBURG — Primus Killen just wanted to be a cop. But for several years after joining the St. Petersburg Police Department in 1959, like other African-American officers, he battled tensions at work.
People in the segregated districts he was allowed to patrol saw him as a traitor. His supervisors did not like the fact that he and other black officers were asking for equal working conditions and chances for advancement.
In 1965, Mr. Killen and 11 fellow officers — the "Courageous 12," as they have been known ever since — filed a landmark lawsuit against the department and the city.
Mr. Killen, the second black officer for St. Petersburg police to become a detective and one of a revered group of police officers who defied unfair working conditions based on race, died Wednesday at home. He was 82.
"The stance they took reverberated through the entire community," said Goliath Davis, who has served as police chief and as deputy mayor. "They not only improved the conditions of African-Americans, but the city as a whole."
Especially in his younger years, Mr. Killen, or "PK," was a sharp dresser who enjoyed charming women. They liked his calm demeanor and soft voice, though he did not say much.
"He was a chick magnet," Minnie Killen, his wife since 1978, said with a chuckle.
Not that he had much time for partying. As one of the city's first dozen or so black police officers, he drove a "C-car" (for "colored") through Zone 13, a series of black neighborhoods with shotgun houses, businesses and bars.
According to Adam Baker, another member of the Courageous 12 now living in the Rochester, N.Y., area, some residents saw black officers patrolling their streets as pawns, similar to black overseers on a plantation.
"You did fight," said Baker, 74. "On weekends you kept extra shirts in your locker. You got your shirts torn off. You were hazed and teased by white officers."
Baker recalled the night he and Mr. Killen responded to a call on Burlington Avenue. A husband has just killed his wife in a bar.
Baker entered the bar first through a rear patio. At the same moment, the husband was leaving. He was carrying a shotgun, which he swung in Baker's direction.
"Primus stepped in 3 feet from this guy and said, 'Gimme this G- - d- - - gun.' He just snatched the gun away from him. The guy was in shock."
Mr. Killen was born in Perry, Ga., in 1929, and moved to St. Petersburg in his late teens. After graduating from Gibbs High School, he served with the Army and drove a cab.
Though he was promoted to detective in 1963, most black officers were not promoted at all. Unwritten rules did not even allow them to arrest white suspects.
In 1965, 12 of the 15 black officers on the force filed an anti-discrimination lawsuit, asking for the right to patrol anywhere in the city. The case was dismissed but reversed on appeal.
"They deserve only what they seek — equality," a judge wrote.
Mr. Killen spent more than 20 years in the department, where he trained other detectives and traffic officers. He won the Ned March award for outstanding police work and, with other members of the Courageous 12, was given a key to the city in 2007.
He volunteered with service organizations in retirement, becoming president of Astros Inc. and a board member of the Nite Riders, which targeted everything from high-risk young people to sickle cell anemia.
Despite suffering a stroke two years ago, Mr. Killen seemed well in recent weeks, his wife said. He had always said he wanted to die in his sleep to spare her the lingering grief. On Wednesday, he got his wish.
Mr. Killen's death leaves only four surviving members of the Courageous 12: Baker, Freddie Crawford, Leon Jackson and Robert Keys.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.