Researchers say St. Petersburg police are more likely to arrest blacks than whites, but they say reasons other than skin color are involved.
The major factors affecting who gets arrested are the seriousness of the crime, how much evidence officers have, and whether a suspect is drunk or disrespectful, said professors who conducted a federally funded study of the city police department.
Researchers from four universities spent about 3,000 hours watching police do their jobs all over St. Petersburg last summer. They released a wide-ranging report Friday.
Among their findings: The odds of being arrested were 42 percent higher for minorities than for whites. Of 1,400 encounters between police and residents, 5.7 percent of those involving whites ended in arrest compared to 8.1 percent of those involving minorities.
Even as they presented these figures, researchers warned against comparisons based solely on race.
"Forty-two percent on the surface looks very powerful," said Michigan State University professor Stephen Mastrofski. "But we can't say there's a race difference with statistical confidence."
Not everyone agrees.
"There's real denial there," said Omali Yeshitela, chairman of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement. "There's no way you can get around the fact that black people are arrested nearly 50 percent more often. Everybody who reads those statistics knows why it's happening."
Frank Peterman, a black City Council member, doesn't doubt that some officers were more likely to stop blacks, but said it was more common before the current police chief took over.
Chief Goliath Davis III emphasized the study's findings that officers arrest suspects for other reasons: the crime, the evidence, whether people are intoxicated and might be dangerous after officers leave, and if they are disrespectful to police.
The study found that police are ruder to African-Americans than to whites, and vice versa.
Researchers said blacks in St. Petersburg are more likely to provoke police with words, obscene gestures or spitting, while police are more likely to question, search, handcuff and ticket blacks compared to whites.
Researchers were asked who typically starts the trouble. They said there's no simple answer.
Davis said he will keep trying to foster mutual respect between residents and officers, pushing the theme in police training and community forums.
Davis pointed out that the same study found most St. Petersburg residents of both races are satisfied with what police are doing.
In a telephone survey of nearly 2,000 people citywide, nearly two-thirds gave police high marks, said Indiana University professor Roger Parks. They also reported feeling safer at night in their neighborhood than residents did in similar surveys in 1991, 1994 and 1996.
The U.S. Department of Justice paid for the study, which also involved Yale University and State University of New York at Albany. The researchers' 153-page preliminary report made no recommendations. Davis said he will use it in future planning. More reports are on the way.
Other findings from the study:
+ Patrol officers encountered someone with a weapon once every six work shifts, on average. They were attacked once every 50 shifts.
+ Rather than make an arrest, officers more often would ask or tell someone not to misbehave or to leave an area.
+ Rather than rushing from call to call, officers had most of their shifts free to patrol, look for problems and talk to residents.
+ One in three residents was worried about home break-ins.