Black leaders say tension rising between Midtown residents, police

ST. PETERSBURG — Leaders of the black community on Wednesday laid out concerns they have with the city's Police Department after a string of incidents in the Midtown area.

Representatives from the NAACP, Urban League, ACLU and Childs Park neighborhood said tensions are rising between residents and officers who patrol the predominantly black community.

"Respect for law and order is only as good as the police who enforce it," said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP. "We are not defending anybody's criminal behavior. But we need law abiding on both sides."

Sykes, flanked in a conference room by local Urban League president Watson Haynes and Childs Park neighborhood president John Muhammad, said residents are concerned about high-speed chases and two recent officer-involved shootings. The group also criticized the department for promoting too few people of color.

Sykes said the NAACP regularly gets complaints from Midtown residents about police. He said they refer people to the agency's internal affairs, but those people aren't happy with the response.

Community leaders plan to write a letter to police Chief Chuck Harmon this week. "We want something done, and we want it done quickly," Sykes said.

Harmon said he feels the department has had a good relationship with the black community over the past few years; he was surprised community leaders held a news conference.

"I guess I'm a little disheartened," Harmon said. "If they're hearing those concerns they know they have access to me."

The chief said he welcomes a meeting with community leaders to discuss specific issues, which he believes are heightened because it's an election year.

But Sykes said they want change, beginning with the chase policy, which was loosened after Mayor Bill Foster took office.

Pursuits have been a hot topic since then. They jumped from 16 in 2010 to 34 in 2011, then decreased to 26 last year. There have been six this year.

Muhammad said he often hears from residents who say police speed through their neighborhood. He said young black males also tell him they feel harassed by police.

"One of the overwhelming sentiments is (police) are still going to do what they want," Muhammad said. "As we do these peace and stop the violence rallies, one of the things we often hear is, 'What are you going to do about the police? They need to stop the violence, too.' "

The black leaders said they are concerned about shootings in March and April in which officers shot into moving cars, which the department forbids unless there is a threat from someone with a gun. Both incidents are under investigation.

Finally, the black leaders said they want the department to examine its record of hiring and promoting people of color. They are concerned there could be a void after the upcoming retirements of high-ranking black commanders, including Assistant Chief Cedric Gordon, who is expected to leave later this year.

Harmon said diversity is a priority and the force reflects the makeup of the city.

Of the 756 sworn and non-sworn personnel at the department, 128 are black, 52 are Hispanic and 19 are Asian.

"My command staff now is probably the most diverse it's been in the last 30 years I've been here," Harmon said, noting that his assistant chiefs include a woman and two black men.

He said the department can do better with promotions, noting that just 16 out of about 100 passed a recent eligibility exam. None was black, he said.

He also said he has spoken before to officers about speeding. "From time to time my officers make mistakes," he said. "But I think our community trusts us more than other parts of the country. Overall our relationship is pretty good."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643.

The Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, prepares for a news conference at the NAACP headquarters in St. Petersburg on Wednesday.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | TIMES

The Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, prepares for a news conference at the NAACP headquarters in St. Petersburg on Wednesday.

Black leaders say tension rising between Midtown residents, police 05/15/13 [Last modified: Thursday, May 16, 2013 12:26am]

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