Saturday, September 22, 2018
Public safety

Police presence at Martin Luther King Jr. Day after-party raises ire

ST. PETERSBURG — One after another, speakers stepped to the lectern at City Hall on Thursday and described the same image: police cruisers on every corner in Midtown, uniformed officers lined up across the roadway, souring what should have been a joyous celebration this week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods.

RELATED: On King’s birthday, Tampa Bay parties, marches, reflects

Nearly two dozen residents aired frustrations to the City Council and mayor, saying authorities left them feeling "like caged animals" with an overwhelming presence at Monday’s after-parade party — a dragnet they believed had racist undertones.

"For blocks and blocks and blocks, just police cars and yellow tape. People actually thought a crime had happened," community organizer Jabaar Edmond said before the meeting. He doubted officers would have taken the same approach in whiter neighborhoods: "This is a small glimpse into the rationale behind a lot of proactive policing and a lot of racial policies and practices that continue to this day here in St. Pete and abroad."

St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway said his department positioned officers across Midtown this year rather than waiting for trouble calls from the after-parade celebration. Holloway, who is black, said the effort was not racially motivated. He said there were as many officers out as in previous years, they were just more visible, and the department approaches the King Day celebration the same way it handles events such as St. Pete Pride, Fourth of July and opening day at Tropicana Field.

The strategy, he said, was an example of effective proactive policing, a response to community concerns about noise and reckless driving around the party, which does not have a city permit. Instead of dispersing loud crowds deep into the night, the chief said, officers cleared the neighborhood by 9:30 p.m.

Police said there were no arrests.

"We manage the crowd," Holloway said. "This is an unpermitted event, but if we were not there, things could go sideways."

• • •

The after-parade celebration is not the work of any one organizer. It’s also separate from the parade downtown. Residents gather in a fairlike atmosphere, with street vendors, barbecue pits, music and socializing along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S in Midtown.

Despite the lack of a permit or single promoter, police each year shut down the street so crowds can spill over onto the sidewalks, said Assistant Chief Luke Williams.

This year, he said, the department stationed officers for traffic control in typical gathering places for partygoers sent off the main road when police reopen the street in the evening. That included some intersections and parking lots outside convenience stores.

Holloway approved the plan. He said the only thing he would do differently in the future is better communicate the traffic detours to residents.

"Am I going to apologize for keeping us safe? Am I going to apologize for the plan working like it’s always worked? No, I am not," the chief said in response to the public comments made at the council meeting.

Police received 117 calls for service around the after-parade celebration, Holloway said, 34 fewer than in 2017. The chief said he has not received any complaints about officers using unjustified force with residents.

"We have a duty to try to make this as peaceful an event as we can," said Williams, who is also black and who has worked King celebrations for three decades. "(Race) never comes into thought in my mind. I try to be consistent in all I do."

• • •

The debate over the police presence at the after-parade celebration was touched off by a Facebook video from Brother John Muhammad, president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association. He showed how police even closed off streets that were several blocks from King Street, forcing him to take a detour to get home. In the video, an officer tells him to move his car; Muhammad questions why the officer is being so curt, saying if he were less level-headed, the interaction could have easily turned contentious.

"I don’t use the words ‘police containment’ lightly," Muhammad said in the video. "But it’s starting to kind of look like police containment."

That post sparked a Facebook event, which encouraged residents to come out and voice concerns at Thursday’s council meeting. From the lectern, residents often addressed Mayor Rick Kriseman directly. Several said they voted for him last year — and were now disappointed.

"What I witnessed on Martin Luther King Day was a culmination of a lack of trust that you blatantly displayed to your constituents," business owner Juan da Costa said.

"I view it as a blatant disregard and a disrespect of the African-American community," Gwen Reese said.

Kyler Reynolds, who said he is a schoolteacher, said Midtown looked like a "military-type zone" after the parade. One speaker used the phrase "martial law," while another said the event was reminiscent of sundown laws and segregation.

Residents also complained that officers were rude and dismissive as they cleared the streets. They said police were unnecessarily tough on vendors — issuing a letter before the event warning that people needed to get permits if they were going to sell food on the street or parking spots in their yards.

But that, Holloway said, is the key difference between the after-parade block party and events like Pride. No one organizer takes out a permit and accepts ownership.

"We don’t know where the food is coming from, whether they’re going to start a fire," the chief said. "Somehow the Police Department got into hosting the party."

Muhammad tagged a number of local leaders in his Facebook video, including Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who said he heard from constituents about the police presence and talked to the mayor about it.

"We’re all looking for the right balance to make sure folks are safe, but still we don’t feel like we are locked down in the community," Welch said.

Kriseman said he talked to Holloway on Tuesday and asked for more thorough briefings about police strategies for future events.

"Our priority as a city is to do everything we can to try to keep people safe, and that happened," the mayor said in an interview. "I certainly regret the fact that there may have been too much security and too many detours."

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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