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The higher you go, the whiter it gets // Black Deputies See Little Progress

Published Jul. 6, 2006

When Everett Rice ran for sheriff in 1988, some of his most vocal supporters were black deputies. They had high hopes he would help more minorities climb the ladder in the biggest agency in the county government.

While they still think Rice has good intentions, several of the same officers say they feel like second-class citizens in the office.

"You have no representation at the top," said Gary Wright, a deputy for 15 years. "There's no one that you can go to that may see it your way. It's very discouraging."

There's only one black lieutenant out of 31 on the force. He's Lt. E. D. White Jr., and he's the top-ranking black person in the law enforcement arm of the office. All captains and majors are white.

"This place is 1920s government," White said. "People just don't like black folks, period, period, period."

The sheriff employs the lowest percentage of black people of any county agency. The percentage stood at 8.8 percent in the most recent report to the county's affirmative action office, according to a Times analysis.

That's a substantial rise from the 2.3 percent the agency employed in 1976. It's also enough to meet the 8 percent requirement set by a 15-year-old federal court order, although the number will dip below the requirement with the addition of 40 recently hired white deputies from the former Dunedin Police Department.

At the top of the office the numbers are much lower.

During his two terms, Rice has made 18 appointments at the executive level, including captains, majors and top civilian officials. One was a black man, one a Hispanic man, three were white women and 13 were white men.

Rice points out that when he replaced Gerry Coleman as sheriff, he also reappointed Charles Felton, a black man, as the head of the jail. That was one of only two reappointments he made _ the other was a woman.

The federal court order on affirmative action required the Sheriff to reach an 8 percent threshold for black employees rather than the 11 percent requirement for the rest of the county. County affirmative action policies don't apply to the Sheriff's Office, which has its own personnel system.

Rice says he has worked hard to promote more minorities and women. He revised testing procedures, bringing in Sgt. Lendel Bright to help the process. Bright is president of the Minority Law Enforcement Personnel of Pinellas County.

"I know full well blacks have been held back," Rice said. "I've tried to do everything I can do to change that. But we've been literally playing catch-up."

During the most recent promotion two years ago, the only person promoted to lieutenant was a white man. A black man, a Hispanic man, a white woman and four white men were promoted to sergeant.

Black people now hold 6 percent of sergeants' positions.

Part of the problem may be the difficulty that law enforcement agencies face in recruiting black applicants. As the O. J. Simpson trial showed, a large segment of the black community wants nothing to do with the police, said Perkins Shelton, a longtime activist with the NAACP branch in St. Petersburg.

"I don't think you'll find too many black people busting the door down to get a job in the Sheriff's Office," Shelton said.

Rice's office recruits for minorities and women at police academies, said Capt. Bruce Earling, who is in charge of personnel for the sheriff.

"Any time I have a qualified black applicant, they've got a pretty good chance of getting hired," Earling said. "We're always looking for them."

Bright said the hiring and promotion process appears fair on the surface, but he said black employees still feel the deck is stacked against them. That perception is based on the outcome _ the almost exclusively white structure atop the agency.

"That's what I see," Bright said. "You may not see it the way I see it. Our perceptions are so different, you know."