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Cops are people too, officer says

It is early on a Tuesday morning and 20 or so sullen-looking teens are eyeing police Capt. Sam Jones with a mix of cynicism and respect.

Jones, head of the Tampa Police Department's Community Affairs Bureau, has just finished his standard "do the right thing" speech at a high school. Now it's time for questions.

He is shown no mercy.

His audience of black teenagers suddenly snaps awake and launches into questions about the unfair things they think cops get away with.

Why is it okay for the police to stop and search them, they want to know. Loud snorts of disgust follow Jones' explanation.

In their eyes, weary and knowledgeable eyes for a group so young, is a suspicion and distrust of law enforcement that has existed in black communities since, well, always, actually.

It's a tough crowd, but the captain takes the skewering in stride.

The fact that he, too, is black may or may not be an advantage in this room.

As he stands in front of the Spartan classroom at Tampa Bay Technical High School, crisp and professional in his regulation blue dress uniform, Jones is totally collected.

There is no tell-tale sweat, no "ers" or "uhs" slowing his speech.

Jones is used to this kind of grilling, and actually kind of enjoys it.

Any time something like the Rodney King beating happens in Los Angeles, or police shoot a black person here, as happened in N Boulevard Homes this summer, people in the street, the folks in the neighborhood, come to Jones with their misgivings about police in general.

He can be at a party. At a church. It doesn't matter.

"I don't mind it. I understand it," said Jones, 41. "There's a great deal of mistrust of police in America, and not just by the minority community."

Jones has a simple answer for people who ask him how he can be part of a profession they believe treats African-Americans unjustly:

"The humans in this job aren't perfect," Jones said. "And that's in any profession. Let's deal with the fact that there are human dimensions that come into play with this job as in any other."

Jones is one of Tampa's own. His father, Sam Jones Sr., worked 20 years with Tampa police, 15 years with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and, most recently, did a short stint as State Attorney Harry Lee Coe's chief investigator.

The younger Jones was born in College Hill and raised in Progress Village, then an up-and-coming suburb for the black middle class.

He remembers riding down Causeway Boulevard to the small, eastern Hillsborough community and seeing hooded Ku Klux Klansmen rallying in fields near the road.

"There I was, 8 or 9 years old, sitting in the car with a police officer and driving by that," Jones said.

Jones said 1965 was a defining year in his life. That was the year he and 10 other black youths integrated Dowdell Junior High School. He calls it "one of the most traumatic years of my life."

Then came the late 1960s, the Civil Rights movement and more soul-searching.

"I had some serious conflicts inside," Jones said. "I'm seeing folks getting whipped up at shopping centers, I'm seeing police dogs going after people."

He wound up on the police force in 1973 with the Howard Avenue/Main Street area as his beat. It was a position that sometimes placed him at odds with some of the same "fellas" he had grown up with.

These experiences happened a long time ago, but it doesn't seem right to refer to them as his "past." They're still part of him and play a role in the choices he's called on to make today.

Take last summer, when problems arose at Ben T. Davis Beach after large crowds of black teenagers starting congregating there on Sunday afternoons.

As a district captain, Jones was in charge of that part of the city. He made the decision to close the beach down for a day after fighting and general unruliness broke out, then dramatically beefed up patrols there in following weeks.

He knew the police blitz would make some black people angry, and he empathized with them. But he also knew it was something he had to do for safety reasons.

"I told the (officers) they must never project the image of being uncertain," Jones said. "If you're out there half-stepping, the public is going to know it."

If an officer is doing his job professionally, he said, black people will respect them, regardless of race.

"I'm not cool because I'm black, I'm cool because I'm open and I'm professional," Jones said.

If a cop isn't behaving professionally, Jones isn't afraid to say so.

"I'm loyal to the institution of law enforcement," he said. "Not necessarily to all the people in it."

That attitude came through in Jones' talk with the teenagers at Tampa Bay Tech.

Cops, he reminded them, are only human.

"We have the same frustrations and emotions as everyone else."

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