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The PBA's ugly politics

With an eleventh-hour mailing that reopens the wounds of last fall's racial disturbances, the Pinellas Police Benevolent Association has injected itself into St. Petersburg's mayoral election in an ugly and unprecedented way.

Mayor David Fischer "has shown that he is not willing to support law enforcement," the PBA mailing blares. The group's complaint? Fischer failed to overrule the decision of police Chief Darrel Stephens last fall to suspend Officer James Knight for 60 days for violating departmental procedure in the October shooting death of TyRon Lewis.

In fact, Fischer's decision not to intervene in a matter of internal police discipline was entirely proper. While a grand jury cleared Knight of any criminal wrongdoing, questions of departmental policy are a different matter _ one properly handled within the department according to its formal policies. A mayor who overrules his police chief in such matters undercuts departmental discipline and inappropriately politicizes the process of law enforcement.

The PBA mailing implies that Fischer's challenger, retired Gen. Bill Klein, would have overruled Knight's suspension. Klein says that implication is correct. He told the Times he "would not" have allowed the department to suspend Knight. "The grand jury cleared him," Klein said. "When the chief did that, he destroyed whatever chance he really had of having a police department come together as a team."

Besides confusing violations of the law with violations of departmental policy, Klein's comments are politically unwise. Had Klein been in a position to make such a decision last fall, the consequences might have been disastrous. Klein has made other promises that should reassure voters, particularly African-American residents, of his commitment to equal enforcement of the law. He supports a stricter "zero tolerance" policy for racial slurs and other discriminatory acts, and he has proposed giving greater authority to the citizen review board that oversees police conduct. However, his comments about Knight's suspension show a lack of sensitivity to racial tensions that existed then _ and now.

PBA Chairman Jack Soule acknowledges that his organization has never before injected itself so aggressively in a city election. It is unfortunate that the PBA chose to do so now. Klein isn't directly responsible for what an independent group says on his behalf, but he should distance himself from the most inflammatory elements of the PBA mailing. This newspaper was critical of the Fischer campaign's earlier efforts to exploit St. Petersburg's racial divisions. In the guise of making similar criticism, the PBA has only exploited those divisions further. It is an effort both candidates and the community should condemn.