ST. PETERSBURG — Some community leaders say an internal investigation completed this week confirms their suspicions that some police officers operate with a cowboy mentality in the city's southern neighborhoods and don't respect residents.
The internal affairs inquiry, sparked several months ago by a resident who said she witnessed police chasing a car through Childs Park without lights or sirens, resulted in suspensions for three officers. A fourth resigned.
Even though police administrators cleared the officers of the most serious allegation — that they were involved in an unauthorized pursuit — they found that the officers broke other rules, including operating without supervision and making improper comments on the radio.
"This validates the people who have come forward and said this is happening," said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP branch. "Hopefully this shows them they have some weaknesses in the system."
Sykes and other neighborhood leaders have gone to top city and police leaders before with complaints from residents about the way police operate in Midtown. One of the biggest complaints has been about cruisers speeding through neighborhoods.
Assistant Chief Luke Williams said he thinks the behaviors exposed in the internal affairs investigation are not widespread.
"We want officers to be proactive," Williams said. "My expectation is when they do that, they are doing it in the guidelines and parameters of our rules and regulations."
On Friday, police released the 15-page transcript of a conversation among the officers, who were found to have made "inappropriate and unprofessional comments" over a radio channel not being monitored by dispatchers or supervisors. The 45-minute conversation took place when it appears the officers were trying to track stolen cars in the Childs Park neighborhood.
Patrol officers David M. Kimes, 38, Robert J. Leoce, 38, Michael W. Carter, 41, and Eric B. Galloway, 31, were working in or near that area, which they referred to as "Shady Side," on July 11.
That night, a rented silver Chevy Malibu with tinted windows caught their attention.
When it sped through a red light at the intersection of 18th Avenue S and 37th Street, two of the officers followed.
The car got away. The officers moved on. But the incident didn't go unnoticed.
Lillian Baker, a former neighborhood president, was at the intersection and saw the marked police cars chase the vehicle. The next day, she sent an email to police Chief Chuck Harmon demanding answers. At first, there weren't many.
None of the officers had filed a report. When detectives could find no record of the incident Baker described, they used GPS-like technology to track which cruisers were in the area at that time. Then they looked at the peripheral radio channels.
According to the transcript, Kimes at one point told Leoce: "You better be careful what you do down there, you'll get yourself suspended or fired if they call, if they get the NAACP involved." Later, they talked about how an officer would have to get run over before it would be okay to shoot.
The officers' comments were made the day after another officer was fired and several others were disciplined for their roles in two incidents in which police shot at suspects fleeing in cars, which is against policy.
Williams suspended Kimes for three days. Leoce and Carter were suspended for two days. Galloway resigned in August.
Williams said the officers acknowledged they had been "lax" on the radio and made inappropriate comments.
Kurt Donley, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, said he is alarmed by the findings.
"If you got a few cowboys, you probably got a lot of cowboys," said Donley, who also has gone to city leaders with concerns. "A large portion of the population feels like they are being targeted. When that gets brought to the public consciousness, usually there's a negative reaction on both sides. … But when people are operating outside the standard of procedure, it raises red flags."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow her on Twitter @cornandpotatoes.