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Holder shows bold side

The normally quiet Tampa police chief moved quickly when he found out that his deputy chief had lied to him.

It was a stunning and politically risky move.

On the one hand, Tampa police Chief Bennie Holder learned through a St. Petersburg Times story that Deputy Chief Ken Taylor had lied to him about his education.

On the other hand, Taylor was no ordinary officer _ he was a 35-year veteran and such a longtime friend of Mayor Dick Greco's that he once was rumored to be a candidate for Holder's job.

Holder reacted swiftly and angrily.

"As soon as I read the story, I picked up the phone and ordered an investigation," said Holder. He gave Taylor a choice: retire or be suspended. Taylor resigned hours later.

Normally taciturn, Holder's reaction was an about-face for a chief many know by sight but few by nature.

"I'm a very strong person, especially when I know I'm right," said Holder. "Each and every day, I do a self-evaluation to try and make sure that in some way, because of my leadership, I have improved this department.

"That's what keeps me going."

Since he was appointed by former mayor Sandy Freedman seven years ago, Holder remains an enigma to many: a man apparently savvy enough to keep his job under two mayors, yet so low-profile that many mistake his silence for weakness.

"He's a gentle giant," Freedman said recently. "He's very caring and compassionate about people in general and his troops in particular, but he doesn't come across that way because he is so quiet and reserved."

Freedman said Holder impressed her during his time as commander of the department's internal affairs unit.

"He was so fair and even, and that's such a difficult job," she said. "That's one of the main reasons he got appointed chief."

Holder, 54, once was the target of an internal affairs investigation. In 1975 he was suspended for five days for conduct unbecoming a police officer and incompetency after he was accused of beating a suspect.

"At the time I did not agree with the outcome of the case, but instead of having a bad attitude, I came away differently," Holder said.

It was a turning point in his career. He learned not to take the job personally and to appreciate the power police wield.

"A police officer can act as a judge, jury and executioner in a matter of seconds," Holder said. "That's an awesome power. I cannot tolerate physically or verbally abusing the public, anything that tarnishes the badge. We're supposed to be a cut above."

Greco said he never seriously considered replacing Holder when he was elected mayor in 1995.

"He's doing a good job," Greco said. "Perhaps he needs to exert more pressure sometimes, but he's not that kind of guy. At the same time, he's not the kind of guy you're going to push around."

As chief, Holder has endured a sexual-harassment lawsuit from a former administrative assistant. A jury found for Holder.

He accepted the resignation of one of his deputy chiefs who had been caught doing outside legal work on city time.

The city's first black chief, Holder has withstood talk that he was appointed because of his race and has outmaneuvered others who eyed his job. He has his office swept regularly for recording devices, and admits to being so paranoid about his image that he won't touch alcohol for fear of being seen anywhere with alcohol on his breath.

"I kind of laugh to myself because people may think they want this position, that it's glamorous, but do they have a rude awakening," Holder said. "The only difference between this chair and old Sparky is that at the end of the day I can get up and walk away. But it's definitely a hot seat."

And the pressure is relentless.

"He has to think about every single word that comes out of his mouth, because it's gospel," said Jim Thompson, president of the West Central Florida Police Benevolent Association.

Crime has fallen during Holder's watch and his officers now work in spacious downtown quarters across Kennedy Boulevard from City Hall.

Holder has overseen the upgrading of the department's computer and automated phone systems and put into place a successful community policing program based out of the city's firehouses.

He also was the first Tampa police chief to require every officer from captain on up to have a four-year college degree (Holder has a bachelor's degree in criminology from Saint Leo College). That requirement, put in place in January 1994, ultimately led to Taylor's resignation.

Most of all, Holder has steadily earned the respect of the 1,200-member force.

"He's a cop's cop," said Sgt. John Bennett, Holder's executive officer.

"He's not a politician, and that's a blessing to have as a chief. He talks from knowledge, not from theory."

Community service officer Alegcy Salgado often is the first person to greet a typically somber Holder from her perch at the information desk in the department's lobby.

"He goes by the book: You do your job and he leaves you alone," Salgado said. "His character is serious but deep inside he's a very nice person."

Homicide Detective J.D. Tindall said Holder appears to "be for the troops."

"The general perception is that he's fair, and wants to do what's best for this department," Tindall said. "He's come to almost every in-service training that I've had, and he'll answer any question, straight up."

Except, perhaps, if it's personal.

Holder has long been known for zealously guarding his private life.

"The free time I have, I want some peace and quiet," he said.

Born the third-youngest of nine children, Holder's early years were spent in a four-bedroom bungalow on a farm in Dawson, Ga., with no electricity or phone.

He still remembers the first time he ever saw a police officer. He was 10, and the man was a motorcycle cop riding in a parade, wearing shiny black boots.

"I told my mom that was what I wanted to be, and she told me "no, you can't, because they don't take colored police officers,' " he said.

A year later, his life changed.

"We were all home when my mother walked out of the room," he said. "My sister heard a thump. My mother had fallen to the floor, dead."

Annie Holder was 41.

Holder's father, Leroy, moved the family to Tampa, where Holder saw his first black police officer.

"That strengthened my resolve" to become a police officer, he said.

From time to time he hears from officers who worry their career is not advancing as it should because of prejudice.

Sometimes, he said, their fears are justified.

"Is there racism in this city? Yes. In this department? Yes," he said. "I can see through it when a supervisor doesn't want to promote someone because of race or their sex."

Did it play a part in his appointment?

"I knew he was black, if that's what you mean," Freedman said. "I went for the best person."

Freedman said she chose Holder for his complete lack of guile. It's the same quality that attracted Holder's wife, Louise, who began dating him in ninth grade. They will have been married 34 years in November.

"I always tell him, "You're really, really square,' " Mrs. Holder said. "He's so straight and narrow. He doesn't sway."

They have two grown children and three grandchildren, one of whom, a first-grader, lives with them during the week at their Hunter's Green home and whom Holder takes to school every morning.

When he's not baby-sitting, he's a self-described exercise fanatic who runs a treadmill every night, bench presses 320 pounds, and recently trimmed down to 210 pounds on his 5-foot, 11-inch frame. His hair is barely touched with gray and his starched clothes are custom-made.

Holder plans to retire in three years and finish the book he already has begun writing about how a poor farm boy from Georgia made it to the top of the police department in a large Southern city.

It's a reality that doesn't always seem to have sunk in.

One of Mrs. Holder's favorite stories about her husband involves the night he was appointed chief. "We ended up going to a Subway sandwich shop," she said."But that's how he is. We have yet to really celebrate any of this."

_ Amy Herdy can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or herdysptimes.com.

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