St. Petersburg’s Luke Williams retiring as a cop, not as a role model (w/video)

Published January 30 2018
Updated January 30 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Luke Williams was a 19-year-old college student working as a department store security guard when a coworker gave him the nudge that young people sometimes need:

"Hey, if you’re going to play like a cop, why don’t you be a cop?"

Williams did exactly that, and his actions over the next three decades distinguished him during his ascent to the highest ranks of the St. Petersburg Police Department while maintaining a reputation beyond reproach.

"Honor, loyalty and integrity. When you say those three things, those are Chief Williams," said St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway. "The community loves him."

Now, after 32 years in the uniform, Assistant Chief Luke Williams is moving on. His last day is Wednesday. But the 54-year-old isn’t turning his back.

Instead, he plans to dedicate his retirement to a different kind of service: guiding young minority men toward success, the way he was guided as a teen.

• • •

Williams grew up on 31st Street S, blocks from Gibbs High School between Jordan Park and Childs Park, before the interstate cut through the neighborhood.

"I grew up in a really, really great neighborhood with great families, during a time when there were usually two parents in the household," he said. "I was blessed to be born here."

His mother, Grace Williams, worked on an assembly line making electronic components. His father, Luke Williams Sr., was a school custodian.

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The younger Luke Williams was the fourth of six siblings — with three older sisters and two younger brothers — who had to wait for his younger brothers to catch up before he had partners to play football.

Like his siblings, he was a successful student, and graduated from Dixie Hollins High School. His parents placed his diploma on the mantle, a practice that started with his older sisters.

"My parents have always said, ‘If you do something, it’s worth doing it correctly and do it right.’"

• • •

He took the words of his parents with him when he joined the force in 1986.

As an officer, Williams treated people with dignity, even those he arrested. Some didn’t forget.

He recalls an incident in which a man threatened him with a knife. Williams was alone and managed to disarm the man. Another man jumped in to help and later asked if Williams remembered him. He didn’t.

"He went to tell me about how I arrested him and took him to jail and how we talked on the way to the jail and I treated him like a person," Williams said, "and that’s why he felt it necessary to come help me."

As he rose through the ranks, he was all about the gestures. In 2006 he became assistant chief for uniformed services, overseeing roughly 75 percent of the department. He strove to memorize each first name.

Williams reported to the station four times a day every Christmas for roll call, a practice he knew took a toll on his family, but one he was certain officers appreciated. Williams remembered lining up for holiday roll calls when he was a patrol officer, wondering if the department’s leadership took notice.

And he always sweated the small stuff. When reviewing officer evaluations, he edited for spelling. After all, he said, what message would it send to the officer in question if the evaluation was riddled with typos?

• • •

Williams is the first to put his career in context.

He joined the St. Petersburg Police Department two decades after a group of 12 black police officers filed suit in 1965 to force the department to integrate. Black officers had been relegated to patrolling black parts of town and restricted to investigating crimes involving black residents and only arresting black suspects.

The "Courageous 12" paved the way for a new generation of officers — officers of color, and women — to join the ranks. Williams is part of that legacy.

"I appreciate what they did," he said, "and without them, I can say with all certainty the opportunities that are present now may not have been present or may have been a whole lot longer in coming."

FROM 2013: Two black leaders at St. Petersburg Police Department retire

Williams became a sergeant in 1996 and rose to assistant chief four years later. He leaves as the second-highest ranking black commander in the department, behind Holloway.

Before the Courageous 12, there had only been one ranking black officer, a sergeant who oversaw the other black officers, said Leon Jackson, one of the 12.

"We came a long way since the Courageous 12 filed that lawsuit," Jackson said.

• • •

Williams’ personnel file, several inches thick, includes evaluations, certificates and dozens of commendations from citizens and past police chiefs.

There’s not one reprimand. No evidence of a disciplinary issue. Not even a vehicle crash while on duty.

"That doesn’t happen very often," Holloway said.

Flip through the accolades and what comes through is a man who represented his department as best he could on the streets, at speaking engagements and in police headquarters. A mother thanked him for a tour he gave to her son. He was scared when they approached the station, she wrote in April 2012, but after the tour he wanted to become an officer.

Then police Chief Chuck Harmon commended Williams: "One kid at a time."

• • •

Williams’ stepped up his involvement with minority youth after Officer Dave Crawford died in the line of duty in 2011.

The officer was shot and killed by 16-year-old Nicholas Lindsey. The teen was 17 when he was sentenced to life in prison.

FROM 2013: Teenager who killed St. Petersburg police officer will spend life in prison with no parole

Back then, Rev. Kenny Irby asked Williams to help create the Write Field program, a mentor initiative designed to expose kids to more of what life has to offer. There were trips to the Museum of Fine Arts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers games, with one catch: The teens had to write about each excursion.

Write Field led to the Men in the Making program, a "cradle to college, wholistic approach to supporting young people," Irby said.

For the hundreds of kids both programs touched, seeing a black assistant chief who grew up on their streets left a powerful impression.

"It makes me proud that I share a lot of characteristics," said Eric Washington, 19, a senior at Williams’ alma mater, Dixie Hollins High, and a member of Men in the Making.

Washington spoke at Williams’ retirement celebration last week. He said Williams and Irby have become like father figures to him.

Williams said he’ll remain in his roles as board member, fundraiser and curriculum writer for Men in the Making, and will continue to guide St. Petersburg’s youth. He could never turn his back on his city.

"I’ve spent my entire life here in St. Petersburg," he said. "It’s the place that I call home and always will call home."

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @ByJoshSolomon.