Fired St. Petersburg official Goliath Davis defends decision to miss police funerals

ST. PETERSBURG — Goliath Davis III, whose rise to the top of his hometown Police Department and City Hall made him the city's most influential African-American official, was fired by Mayor Bill Foster this week.

Davis said the mayor wanted him out because he did not attend Tuesday's funeral for the third officer killed in the city in 28 days. Yet the former police chief did go to the funeral of the convict who killed the first two officers.

Foster said he "lost confidence" in Davis to perform his duties as senior administrator of community enrichment. Davis ignoring Foster's order to attend Officer David S. Crawford's funeral was "a straw," he said.

Davis, who admits he has always been a "lightning rod," said he went to the convict's funeral to support his family — not the killer. He acknowledged ignoring the mayor's recent request, saying he paid his respects to the families at the officers' wakes.

It wasn't until a Friday news conference — after weeks of media scrutiny and pointed criticism — that Davis offered his first public explanation for missing the funerals:

Attending would have reminded Davis too much of his good friend, the last officer to die in the line of duty 30 years ago: Detective Herbert R. Sullivan.

"I can tell you all that when the two officers were killed, for me it was three," Davis said. "Because not only did I have to deal with two deaths, I had to deal with the death of Herbert Ray Sullivan.

"Then when Crawford was killed, for me, it wasn't three deaths. It was four."

Foster fired Davis on Wednesday, Davis' 60th birthday, but it didn't come out until Friday.

During the news conference, as Davis announced the end of his 37 years in public service, he seemed at times like a reverend preaching to a loyal congregation. More than 150 people packed the Enoch Davis Center to hear his farewell, punctuating Davis' words with applause and shouts of approval.

Then after the cameras left, after he was done shaking hands and posing for pictures, Davis revealed the compromise he asked city Administrator Tish Elston to deliver to the mayor:

Let him stay on three months to finish one last project, then he'll announce his retirement and leave City Hall quietly.

Davis said Elston delivered Foster's answer:

"He wants you out by the close of business Friday."

• • •

Foster and Davis were always an unlikely pair.

They butted heads back when Foster was on the City Council and Davis was police chief.

There was that memorable council workshop in 2000, when Foster supported a review of the Police Department and Davis' managerial style. Davis said the force didn't need another review and questioned Foster's motives.

"It doesn't have to be personal," Foster said, according to a St. Petersburg Times account.

"Don't insult me," replied Davis. "That's all I'm saying. . . ."

Foster made a sarcastic comment as Davis left the room.

"Don't say nothin' to me, councilman," Davis said. "Nothin'."

During the 2009 mayoral campaign, Foster talked about how the city didn't need three deputy mayors, but kept Davis anyway.

Davis became Foster's senior administrator of community enrichment, paid $152,735 annually to oversee Midtown, the business assistance center and community development.

There were hiccups: The mayor took away Davis' city vehicle in May 2010 after a Gulfport officer pulled him over in the early morning hours. Police said Davis passed a roadside sobriety test. Foster said he took the car away for budgetary reasons.

About the only thing Davis and Foster agreed on Friday is that Davis might sue the city.

• • •

Then came Jan. 24. Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz and Sgt. Thomas J. Baitinger were killed in a shoot-out with a wanted man.

Davis said his absence at their memorial wasn't an issue until he attended the funeral of their killer: Hydra Lacy Jr. Davis is friends with Hydra's brother, local boxing legend Jeff Lacy.

The result was a storm of criticism aimed at Davis by the police unions — his old nemesis as police chief — and Tampa shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.

Davis dodged questions, saying he didn't have to explain his grief. He did Friday, recalling the loss of his childhood friend to the Vietnam War, the death of a brother and Sullivan.

"I don't take my private life into the public sector," Davis said. "But I can tell you that I have had to live with a series of deaths that have taken a toll on me.

"The easy thing for me would have been to disavow the Lacy family, and if I had done that, we wouldn't be standing here."

St. Petersburg Detective Mark Marland, president of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, wasn't placated by Davis' explanation Friday.

"He had 30 years between Sullivan's death and now," Marland said. "After going to Baitinger's funeral, 32 days later I still went to Crawford's funeral.

"I don't buy that excuse at all."

• • •

Davis said he explained his reasons for not attending the officers' funerals to Elston, his direct supervisor, after the controversy after the Lacy funeral.

Foster said Friday that he wasn't told about it.

"It would have been nice to have had communication," the mayor said.

After Crawford was killed Feb. 21, Foster required all of his top officials, or "cabinet," to attend the service on Tuesday.

"Why did I require that?" Foster said. "Because . . . the staff that works for the city is a family. . . . Sometimes we do things together to support the family."

Davis said he asked for another assignment that day, like the ones given to other cabinet members who could not attend. But the mayor, through Elston, stood firm, Davis said.

Elston pitched a compromise, he said: show his support by standing outside the church.

Davis said he couldn't do that, either.

• • •

Davis has been praised throughout his career as a thoughtful, well-prepared facilitator who can always broker a deal. His critics have charged that his career is built on soothing the city's uneasy race relations.

Davis prides himself as a chief for restoring discipline and professionalism on a police force some believe was caught unprepared for the 1996 riots. Yet his tenure also was marked by constant fights and lawsuits with the police unions over Davis' discipline methods, which they called unfair and arbitrary.

When he retired in 2001, former Mayor Rick Baker asked him to stay on as deputy mayor. At City Hall, his supporters praised him for being a troubleshooter who gave black residents a voice. His detractors said they weren't sure what his work entailed.

Davis' news conference took an uncomfortable turn when he let Omali Yeshitela, the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement founder, speak.

"Goliath Davis has fallen because he represented this community," Yeshitela said. "Our community is a good community."

Yeshitela called for "power to the people" until Davis was able to re-take the podium. "If I wasn't fired already," Davis said, "I would be after that."

Davis said he wants his career to be remembered for the values be stood for: fairness and inclusiveness.

"If I had to do it all over again," he said. "I would do it the same way."

Then the room applauded one last time.

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.

Goliath Davis gets a hug from supporters after his news conference at the Enoch Davis Community Center on Friday. He spent 37 years working in public service in St. Petersburg.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Goliath Davis gets a hug from supporters after his news conference at the Enoch Davis Community Center on Friday. He spent 37 years working in public service in St. Petersburg.

Fired St. Petersburg official Goliath Davis defends decision to miss police funerals 03/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 4, 2011 11:18pm]

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