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Two black leaders at St. Petersburg Police Department retire

St. Petersburg police Sgt. Al White, 58, left, and assistant Chief Cedric Gordon, 52, were part of a generation of black officers who served at a time of improved race relations at the agency.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

St. Petersburg police Sgt. Al White, 58, left, and assistant Chief Cedric Gordon, 52, were part of a generation of black officers who served at a time of improved race relations at the agency.

ST. PETERSBURG — For the past three decades, activists and leaders in the city's African-American community knew exactly who to call if they had an issue with crime or public safety.

Cedric Gordon or Al White. Sometimes both.

The two men, who started as cadets together 33 years ago and rose through the ranks, never considered police work a 9-to-5 job.

Attending community events was as important as arresting bad guys. Listening to pastors and grandmothers held the same priority as quelling neighborhood flare-ups.

"If you're going to be a successful police department, you have to be able to connect to people," said Gordon, who along with White quietly retired last month. "It's all about the community."

On Friday, the two men, who became as close as brothers, were feted in an hourslong celebration downtown at the Hilton attended by more than 500 people.

Yet for all the well-wishes, there also was an underlying angst.

"We've had few blacks who have risen to the ranks where they can have decisionmaking or policymaking influence," said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP. "It brought a sense of connection between the Police Department and the African-American community. It was a stabilizing effect. And so with those two going into retirement, the question then becomes how is that looking in terms of the future?"

Gordon and White, part of a post-civil rights era generation of black officers who came to the department after it already had been sued for its segregation practices, say they are proud to have served during a time of improvement in race relations at the agency.

But they also believe it's time for the department to undergo another cultural change — one they say is more subtle but just as important.

White said too many young officers — black and white — have a feeble grasp of the history of tension between the department and the black community, and the struggles people of color endured within the agency. Many don't live in the neighborhoods they police, and even fewer make an effort to engage, they said.

The two men also said they are disappointed "current leadership" has not pushed the issue.

"It's not fair to the community, and it's not fair to the department," Gordon said. "The Police Department is too important of an entity in the community to not make sure it's being run properly and that people are doing the right thing. We worked too hard to see things go back."

Police Chief Chuck Harmon said he's proud of the progress the department has made.

When White and Gordon came on, the department was in the height of a recruiting push because of the low numbers of blacks and women.

Now, 17 percent of the agency's sworn and civilian employees are black, according to data from August. That includes 18 people who rank as sergeants or higher.

"This is the most diverse we've been," said Harmon, whose top command staff is composed of four blacks and 14 whites. Eight of his top staff are women.

Harmon said he is aware of how Gordon and White feel. "In my role, you listen to a lot of people. Neither one was ever shy about expressing themselves."

Gordon, who was raised in Tampa, and White, a Birmingham, Ala., native who did a short stint in the Air Force, were hired in 1980 by Goliath Davis.

Both men decided as kids they wanted to be police officers. Almost immediately, they had to deal with that they called the "organizational shock" of trying to fit into a department that was very white.

Every move was scrutinized. Harassment and discrimination— as blatant as the N-word etched on a bathroom stall and as subtle as repeatedly getting passed over for promotion — was nothing new for the black officers. Davis didn't cut them slack either.

"I told them if you get by me, you will make it," Davis said. "It wasn't sufficient to come to work on time. You needed to be early. It wasn't enough to pass the test. You needed to excel. … We got to where we were because of the sacrifices those before us made. That legacy has to continue."

Davis expected his staff to be involved in the community, especially if they wanted to advance. That philosophy has waned under Harmon, Gordon and White said, and not many people are speaking up about it.

"I've noticed a trend where it seems like some of the African-Americans who move up the ranks are seen as docile, as people who won't make waves," Gordon said.

Said White: "They are good officers on the street, they just don't have the guidance. It's the supervision. It's the leadership."

Harmon said he encourages his staff to interact with the community, but he's not sure it's reasonable to expect everyone to go as far as Gordon and White.

But community leaders are hoping that's exactly what happens.

"They kept the pulse of the community — and I'm talking about the whole community, not the black one," said Haynes, of the Urban League. "They were more than just police officers. … I hope someone reaches out and says, 'Cedric and Al did so much, I need to step my game up.' "

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

Two black leaders at St. Petersburg Police Department retire 10/19/13 [Last modified: Saturday, October 19, 2013 12:02am]
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