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Tampa Bay leaders condemn fatal police beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis

“We fear for our lives every day,” said one local NAACP leader.
 
Protesters rally against the fatal police assault of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tenn., on Friday.
Protesters rally against the fatal police assault of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tenn., on Friday. [ SETH HERALD | GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA ]
Published Jan. 30, 2023|Updated Jan. 31, 2023

When Memphis officials on Friday released footage of five police officers beating a Black man during a traffic stop, it sparked outrage, shock and grief across the nation and in the Tampa Bay area.

The five officers, who are also Black, were fired and face second-degree murder charges in the killing of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, who died several days after he was beaten.

Several local leaders, including St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, tweeted their disgust and sadness upon viewing the footage.

“My heart is heavy after viewing the video of the murder of Tyre Nichols by 5 former Memphis police officers,” Welch, who is the city’s first Black mayor, tweeted on Saturday. “They are a disgrace to the uniform and everything that law enforce.ment should represent, and must be brought to justice.”

“The video of the Tyre Nichols traffic stop in Memphis sickens me and surely every decent person who sees it, including police officers,” Castor, who previously served as Tampa’s police chief, tweeted late Friday night. “This goes against everything that we expect from those who are sworn to protect and serve our communities.”

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway also shared statements on social media condemning the five officers’ actions.

“Thanks to them, the community and law enforcement have to start from square one again,” Holloway said in a phone interview with the Tampa Bay Times on Monday.

Gualtieri said the killing “had nothing to do with law enforcement officers trying to do their jobs (and) meeting with resistance.”

“What clearly happened out there was a street beating,” Gualtieri said Monday.

In Hillsborough County, interim Tampa police Chief Lee Bercaw and Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister released a joint statement condemning the Memphis officers’ actions.

“Excessive force, abuse of power, criminal conduct, or violation of policies put in place to protect both citizens and law enforcement officers is never acceptable,” the statement said in part. “The horrific actions of the five Memphis Police Officers that resulted in the death of a young man do not reflect on the thousands of dedicated and compassionate men and women of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the Tampa Police Department.

“As the justice system is at work in Memphis, the Tampa Police Department and Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office encourage the public to have patience during this difficult and, rightfully so, emotional process,” the statement continues. “Both agencies are dedicated to providing responsible and respectful law enforcement services while preserving the rights and dignity of all.”

The Tampa Police Benevolent Association also condemned the killing.

“What we all witnessed in the video released from the Memphis Police Department has no place in the law enforcement profession,” Brandon Barclay, president of the union, said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. “The members of the Tampa PBA work diligently everyday with the community to earn their trust and respect.”

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“This partnership with the community is the key to our success. Each member of the Tampa PBA is held to the highest standard and will continue to protect and serve the citizens of Tampa with courtesy and professionalism.”

For community leaders and activists, the violent beating demonstrates issues that go beyond the five officers’ actions.

The Rev. Kenny Irby said he has a unique perspective as both a pastor and an employee of the command staff of the St. Petersburg Police Department as a community intervention director.

Irby said that the perpetrating officers in Memphis were Black is an obvious contrast to what has been typically seen in instances of police brutality. However, Irby said that the actions speak to a “culture of corruption and oppression.”

“For me, I think it is about race in terms of the historical disregard and respect for Black and brown bodies,” Irby said. “The perpetration of that in this case is now being exerted by Black men but it goes deeper in the legacy and history of policing in America.”

In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg NAACP branch president Esther Eugene said that she was “outraged and deeply saddened” by Nichols’ death.

“As has happened far too many times, we have to try to find understanding around such a horrific and senseless event,” Eugene said. “These officers did not honor their oath to perform their job with fidelity.”

Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP branch, said the color of the officers’ skin is irrelevant. She said a lack of accountability for police departments across the country creates an environment where violence against Black people is quietly enabled by law enforcement officers.

“The Black community is vulnerable to the agencies that were sworn to protect it,” Lewis said. “It’s ironic that (officers) say they fear for their lives. We fear for our lives every day.”

She pointed to the City of Tampa, whose council recently voted against allowing the Citizens Review Board subpoena power, as well as a separate attorney. She said denying the checks and balances to citizens charged with holding law enforcement officers accountable is part of the problem — especially when it’s clear racial biases exist.

Just last month, she said, the Tampa Police Benevolent Association’s candidate endorsement survey sent out to those running for city office asked questions about whether candidates supported Black Lives Matter or had published anything that “would be considered anti-police or critical of police.”

”(Officials) keep saying we live in a diverse city, but we don’t get a diverse opinion ... or process,” Lewis said. “When is enough, enough?”

LaDonna Butler is a therapist who founded the Well for Life in St. Petersburg, a wellness space to help address the mental health needs of communities of color. The organization is planning a debrief session on Thursday evening for those who want to process the mental health impacts of the Memphis killing.

“Watching it and bearing witness to that harm has a profound effect on not only our minds, but our bodies and our spirits as a people,” Butler said.

On Sunday, members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation held a demonstration in downtown St. Petersburg, calling for a guilty verdict in Nichols’ killing as well as racial justice in Florida.

“What happened to Tyre Nichols is not unique to Memphis,” Karla Correa, a member of the group’s steering committee, said in a phone interview Monday. “This is something that could have very well happened, and has happened, here in St. Pete.”

The Rev. Russell Meyer, anti-racism educator for Black Lives Matter Tampa, said “state-sponsored violence” against citizens is well-documented, but the systemic changes needed to address it will take time.

“It almost always seems to carry a racialized narrative,” he said. “And there is strong reluctance to actually make the institutional changes that would end it.”

Times staff writer Matt Cohen contributed to this story.