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Group seeks police reforms

Police Chief Darrel Stephens promised Thursday to work with religious leaders on a series of initiatives to give residents more say in how police officers are hired and promoted and in how they do their jobs.

Among the demands of the religious leaders: that police officers file a written report every time they draw their weapons, that new recruits be required to live in the city and that the Citizen Review Committee overseeing the Police Department be granted broad new powers, including the right to issue subpoenas.

"The more dialogue we have, the better chance we have to resolve issues in a way that serves this community well," Stephens told 400 people at Bethel Community Baptist Church. Mayor David Fischer pledged to support Stephens.

The meeting Thursday was initiated by Congregations United for Community Action, 36 religious groups working toward social justice. CUCA members spent weeks talking with Stephens and other police officials about ways to build trust between the police and city residents.

The purpose of the meeting was to announce the initiatives and ask Stephens and Fischer to publicly support them.

CUCA began its work after the racial disturbances that followed the fatal shooting in October of 18-year-old black motorist TyRon Lewis. James Knight, the white police officer who shot Lewis during a traffic stop, was later cleared by a grand jury but suspended without pay for 60 days by Stephens.

The Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church, likened the racial tensions in the city to "a sleeping giant" that grew for years and was awakened after the shooting.

CUCA had three demands of Stephens. The first was that the Police Department participate in a series of round-table discussions among city residents, police administrators, community police officers and 911 officers. The first is to be held April 13 at Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ.

The second demand was that Stephens work with CUCA to strengthen the Citizen Review Committee, a 26-member panel that reviews allegations of police misconduct but lacks the authority to do anything about them.

CUCA believes the committee should have the power to appeal decisions of the police chief and subpoena witnesses in cases of possible misconduct. It also wants the Police Department to file a report with the committee each time a police officer draws a weapon.

A similar requirement of police in Charleston, S.C., brought about a decrease in shootings, according to the Rev. Curtiss Long of New Faith Free Methodist Church. Long was among the CUCA members who studied the issue.

CUCA's third demand had several parts. It demanded that the Police Department implement a "zero-tolerance" policy toward acts of discrimination by officers, that residents be given a say in hiring and promotions, and that new recruits be required to live in the city. About half the city's police officers live outside St. Petersburg.

Assistant Chief Goliath Davis said the Police Benevolent Association, the police union, will be invited to work on each of the initiatives.