St. Petersburg police change tactics for MLK Day following last year's controversial strategy

Chief Tony Holloway said his officers will be less visible this year during the parade's after-party, which stretches down Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S.
Members of the Tuskegee University Marching Crimson Piper Band march through downtown St. Petersburg during the annual MLK Dream Big Parade in 2017.  [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times (2017)]
Members of the Tuskegee University Marching Crimson Piper Band march through downtown St. Petersburg during the annual MLK Dream Big Parade in 2017. [SCOTT KEELER | Times (2017)]
Published January 18
Updated January 18

ST. PETERSBURG — City officials promise that officers will take a more discreet approach on Monday when patrolling Martin Luther King Jr. Day activities.

Last year, community members expressed outrage at the tactics used by the St. Petersburg Police Department to patrol the after-party and parade. Some said the yellow police tape and an abundance of police cruisers bordered on “police containment” and made St. Petersburg streets resemble “military-type zones.” There were no arrests, but residents said the lack of communication from police ahead of time about the more aggressive strategy left them taken by surprise.

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This year, officers will be less visible during the after-party.

“We want people to be able to celebrate as they’d like to, but we also want them to be safe,” said police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez.

Maria Scruggs, president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, said she’ll wait and see if things improve.

“I leave it like this: the proof will be in the pudding,” Scruggs said. “I have no reason to believe, at this point, until you show me differently, Chief (Tony) Holloway won’t keep his word.”

The focal point of the festivities is the MLK Dream Big Parade. The 34th annual, it’s oldest in the bay area, and last year drew an estimated 45,000 people, according to official estimates

But the celebration kicks off Sunday night with a new event: a marching band battle at Gibbs High school at 5 p.m. The parade begins Monday at 11 a.m., starting on First Avenue S at Third Street and heading west to 16th Street. Organizers have put the main grandstand where the route crosses Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

The parade has drawn marching bands from historically black colleges and universities in the past, and this year will feature Tuskegee University’s band and Talladega College’s band, as well as Pinellas County high school bands and one from Palm Beach. It will feature more than 100 units and bands in total.

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The parade empties at Tropicana Field, where there will be rides and other attractions as part of Family Fun Day. And there will be opportunities all day long to honor King’s legacy through community service.

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This year, for the first time, there will be a car show at the Trop after Fun Day wraps up, according to Toriano Parker, parade organizer and chairman of the Advantage Village Academy.

The after-party closes out the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations, an informal neighborhood party stretching south on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street between about 11th Avenue S and 22nd Avenue S that lasts deep into the evening.

For years, according to Holloway, officers waited to be called upon. But last year, in an effort to be more proactive — and in response to homeowners concerned about parties spilling onto their property and those worried about reckless driving around the gatherings — officers were out from the start. They parked their patrol cars on some parking lots to keep partygoers off, but that prevented people from reaching businesses, some of which rely upon the holiday as their largest source of revenue. Police kept street vendors from selling.

After it got dark, officers shut the party down by walking down the street in a straight line — which Scruggs called a “militia-style formation” — telling people to go home.

And then there was that yellow tape, which cordoned off the parade route, Scruggs said.

Her daughter dropped her off at the parade last year, and the pair thought they had come upon a crime scene.

“She was like, Momma what happened? Who got killed?” Scruggs recalled. “It was for the parade. I thought ‘oh heck no.’”

Scruggs wasn’t alone. Frustrated residents expressed their displeasure and disappointment during a three-hour meeting that Holloway attended. The issue also came up during an explosive City Council meeting.

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This year, all the tape will be blue, which is the color of tape used during special events, police said.

The police won’t block businesses or bother those on private property, unless called upon by the property owner.

And officers won’t walk the streets to break up the party.

“A lot of people felt, ‘you shouldn’t have the right to tell me to go home,’” Holloway said. “And you know what? If they’re on private property, they’re right.”

Scruggs said if patrolled correctly, the day can commence as “a celebration as opposed to a show of force.”

Contact Josh Solomon at [email protected] or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.