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For 40 years, he helped keep the peace

(ran East, South, West, editions)

Horace Nero's closest call as a police officer happened when he was a rookie.

It was in late 1962 or early 1963.

A sneak thief had gotten into a woman's purse in the Trocadero Cafe at Third Avenue S and 14th Street, an area known then as The Hollow. Missing was the woman's .32-caliber pistol.

"I chased him before I knew he was armed," Nero said of the suspect.

When Nero caught up, the thief turned around with gun in hand.

"I dove for his body and wrist," Nero recalled.

The two scuffled and rolled on the ground. Nero came up on top, but the thief stuck the pistol under the officer's chin and fired.

The bullet missed. Nero had managed to grab the gun's muzzle, shoving it into the dirt as the thief tried to pull the trigger again and again.

A burly, former lineman on the Gibbs High School football team, Nero ended the episode with an arrest. It wasn't until later that he thought about how close a shave it really was.

"With limited training, you tend to act on instinct, and I think that's what got me through that," Nero said.

Sgt. Horace Nero, 65, retires this week after a 40-year career defined by a love for street police work, a talent for communicating and his role in helping to end segregation in the Police Department.

Police officials can't think of another officer who has served as long.

"I think that's the record," said Goliath Davis, now a deputy mayor who was one of 11 police chiefs in office during Nero's career.

Nero will be honored at the Yacht Club Friday at a party police officials are calling "a tribute to an urban Buffalo Soldier."

It is a reference to the Old West's Ninth and 10th Cavalry Regiments, African-American outfits nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers during the Indian Wars.

St. Petersburg's early black police officers sometimes adopted the name, Nero said. "It was a label we wore with pride."

Fourteen African-Americans were on the force when Nero joined on Oct. 8, 1962. They were allowed to patrol black neighborhoods only and had no cruisers. When they finally were assigned cruisers, the cars were marked with the letter "C" for "colored" and could be used only by the black officers, who typically faced resistance when trying to arrest a white person.

"We had difficulty representing to the public in general that we had full authority like a white officer," Nero said.

Black and white officers had separate drinking fountains in the station, and locker areas were segregated.

After trying without success to solve inequities through city officials, Nero and some fellow officers pooled their money to sue the city to make changes. They were represented by the law firm of Frank Peterman Sr., James Sanderlin and Frank White, whose offices were on 22nd Street S not far from where Nero grew up.

The officers lost the first round in federal court, but won on appeal in New Orleans. Gradually, conditions improved.

"We got quite a bit of support from white officers. During this transition period, they were beautiful in understanding our plight," Nero said.

But the African-American officers sometimes continued to receive resistance from both black and white residents. Name-calling was routine.

"I guess you became oblivious to name-calling, if that person did not threaten you or put their hands on you, you let them talk," Nero said.

"Being black was an advantage. You had been called names in some sense all your life. I considered that a blessing. White officers reacted quicker to name-calling."

Pig? "I've been called better names than that on a Sunday," Nero said.

Many times, Nero used his patience and communications skills to ease hostility, say officers who know him.

"He has a real gift of gab. He can be real persuasive," Davis said.

Primus Killen was an African-American officer who helped train Nero.

"We'd get into a hostile situation and find a way to talk ourselves out of it," Killen said. "We didn't want to put them in jail, we were just trying to get some peace."

Often, said Killen, Nero's propensity for using the spoken and written word found its way into Nero's reports.

"Sometimes his report writing was so complex, I couldn't understand it because he used so many big words," said Killen, laughing at the memory.

Nero's roots go deep in the community. Born in Augusta, Ga., he came to St. Petersburg at age 3 and grew up at 11th Avenue S and Union Street, just a few blocks from where he lives now.

At Gibbs, he played football under legendary coach and disciplinarian N.L. "Love" Brown, known for driving the streets to make sure his players were in by the 9 p.m. curfew the coach imposed.

"He caught me out on a porch when I should have been in bed," Nero said, shaking his head at what was a memorable bawling out.

He has been a mentor in the 500 Role Models of Excellence program, helped with bowling events the Juvenile Welfare Board sponsors, has worked with the Urban League and served as a vice president of the NAACP.

"One of the things (the Police Department) is going to lose with him retiring, he knows about everyone in the community," said Sam Lynn, police chief from 1980-90 and now a Pinellas County Sheriff's Office major.

As a sergeant, Nero patrols while supervising a day shift. He said he hopes to be on the street right through his last day Friday, maybe right up until party time.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," he said.

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