ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Tony Holloway said his officers will rejoin the Violent Crimes Task Force, which was created by Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to curb an epidemic of teen car thefts.
Last week, a Pinellas deputy assigned to the task force killed an armed man in a shoot-out in a St. Petersburg alley. But Holloway said that incident played no role in his decision. Rather, he said, the St. Petersburg Police Department now has the staffing to rejoin the group.
“Our resources are starting to get back to where we can meet the needs,” Holloway said.
The sheriff formed the task force with St. Petersburg and Clearwater’s police agencies, but Holloway quietly withdrew his officers in summer 2019.
He declined to release the names of the three officers who will join the force in mid-February until that announcement is made internally. They will join a team of 10 Pinellas deputies and one Clearwater officer.
When St. Petersburg pulled five officers out of the task force last year, Holloway said at the time he was moving those positions to an anti-crime team that handles auto theft and what the chief said were rising problems in the city, including drug dealing and prostitution. That team will continue to operate.
But a police union official last year questioned whether Holloway was bowing to residents’ complaints about the task force. Months before leaving the unit, the chief disciplined two of his officers for incidents that took place while they worked with the task force.
One St. Petersburg officer used an electroshock device on a man who had surrendered and was lying on the ground, and another officer struck a man who was also surrendering himself. The sheriff, however, didn’t discipline a Pinellas deputy who also struck the suspect in the latter incident.
Now the Sheriff’s Office is investigating another task force incident — this one involving deadly force — when Deputy Richard Curry shot and killed 29-year-old Marquis Golden on Thursday night in what the agency is calling an ambush.
Golden and another man, Delvin Ford, pointed guns at Curry as he was staking out a home at 2222 36th St. S, according to the Sheriff’s Office, leading to a shoot-out in a nearby alley.
Golden died at the scene. Ford is facing charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm and second-degree murder, which can be filed when the accused takes part in a crime that results in someone’s death. In this case, Ford faces a murder charge because Golden died in the commission of a crime.
The incident started, according to the Sheriff’s Office, when Golden approached Curry’s undercover vehicle, a silver Ford Fusion. Inside, Curry was wearing a tactical vest with “Sheriff” across the front in big letters, Gualtieri said. The deputy rolled down the window. Golden said Curry was a “trol,” according to a sheriff’s report, slang for police officers. Curry said he was and told Golden to get away from his car.
Moments later the men came back. Golden was armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and Ford had a .40-caliber handgun, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Curry fired 18 times from his 9mm pistol, and, at the scene later, investigators found three spent shell casings from the AR-15 and five from the .40-caliber handgun. The agency has not yet determined who fired first, Gualtieri said.
But the sheriff’s description of events has sparked skepticism within St. Petersburg’s black community, said Brother John Muhammad, president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association.
“Seeing an officer, knowing that he is an officer, and leaving and coming back armed does not match with the dominant narrative of the area,” Muhammad said. “The culture is ‘stay away from police, don’t talk to police.’”
The deputy and two men involved in the shooting are all black. But Muhammad said that hasn’t alleviated skepticism.
Gualtieri said such criticism was “purely speculative." But the sheriff also doesn’t know why the men would initiate a confrontation with a deputy. He pointed to their lengthy criminal histories and possession of high-powered weapons as signs, describing them as “bad guys.”
Jabaar Edmond, vice president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, countered the sheriff’s point by noting the two mens’ criminal histories had never reached that level of violence.
“To rationalize something like that because of your criminal history is kind of what the system does to us in the black community," Edmond said. He added the shooting emphasizes the need for body cameras, which neither the Sheriff’s Office nor the St. Petersburg Police Department have adopted.
Both Edmond and Muhammad said the community supported Holloway’s decision to pull out of the task force, pointing to incidents like Thursday’s shooting or that the chief would discipline an officer while the sheriff wouldn’t in the same incident. They were surprised to learn that St. Petersburg is rejoining the unit, but are open to learning more about Holloway’s reasoning.
Gualtieri and Holloway both dismissed concerns about the task force. The sheriff said it’s been effective, and the police chief said his agency’s renewed involvement gives St. Petersburg a voice in how it will operate.
“We can have officers from our community to give input,” Holloway said.
Times staff writer Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report.