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Tampa Bay's black officers caught in middle of national debate over police and race

St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway said a white officer inspired him to choose a career in law enforcement.
St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway said a white officer inspired him to choose a career in law enforcement.
Published Jul. 20, 2016

St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway lost friends when he became a cop. He knows some people hate him for being one.

"They don't see me as a black man, they see me as a police officer," he said. "You're working for the man."

As a national race and policing debate swells, Holloway and other black officers find themselves in a thorny middle ground between a fiercely loyal law enforcement community and some minorities that do not trust authorities.

The difficult position was highlighted by a recent Facebook post from Baton Rouge police Officer Montrell Jackson. On July 8, after an ambush killed five officers in Dallas, Jackson wrote that he loved his Louisiana city but wasn't sure it loved him back.

He was shot to death Sunday with two other cops.

"In uniform I get nasty hateful looks," he had written, "and out of uniform some consider me a threat."

• • •

Some officers in the Tampa Bay area routinely face the tension of such a dual existence.

"I think in general, because of the position we hold, we're not going to always make people happy," said Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Monique Greco.

Greco, a Tampa native, has been a sheriff's deputy for 16 years. Part of what attracted her to the job, she said, was a desire to bring change from within the ranks of police. Growing up in Town 'N Country, she knew male family members who had negative encounters with cops.

Derrick Nelson, a black police officer who works in St. Petersburg's Midtown, said he feels "in the middle of everything."

"Obviously a lot of your family and friends are African-American as well, so I do hear it: 'Cops are bad. Why do they got to do this? Why do they do that?' " Nelson said.

Leon Jackson heard some of the same complaints 50 years ago during the civil rights movement as an officer in St. Petersburg. He was one of the "Courageous 12" who sued to desegregate the department. But as a black officer, he could only arrest black residents in Midtown.

"A lot of times those black people felt that we were betraying them," he said. "They thought we were selling them out."

People would tell him they hated him. But he knew they just hated his job.

He said he recognizes a similar frustration in frayed discourse between minority communities and police today.

• • •

Some in law enforcement understand the protests against police, which spiked this summer after two black men died in officer-involved shootings in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights, Minn.

Other officers say advocates rush to judgment and don't consider all of the circumstances.

"It sucks right now for law enforcement," said Roni Carithers, who followed her aunt, former Assistant Chief Tina Wright, into a career at the Tampa Police Department. "A couple bad apples give us all a bad name."

Policing was the only career she considered. She has known hints of racism, she said, but never considered her race a bar to anything she wanted to do.

"If you go to a store, sometimes people will watch you," she said. "But I'm not the kind of person that says it's because I'm black."

She grew up in Brandon and patrols east Tampa and figures people may be more receptive to her if she looks like them.

Stories she has heard of shootings at the hands of police in other states leave her puzzled.

"I just can't fathom that would happen here," Carithers said.

"I can't think of an officer that would shoot somebody because they are a certain race."

• • •

Greco sees value in honest discussions of race between cops and the communities they serve.

But the people who shoot police officers are not looking for such a conversation, she said.

"Killing law enforcement officers senselessly, doing these rash, violent acts — that's not going to effect positive change," she said.

Most officers describe community policing as a salve.

They tout frequent patrols through neighborhoods, visits to churches, stops at restaurants and other face-to-face meetings to show that officers are human, too.

St. Petersburg's Holloway recalls that it was a white officer who mentored him as a boy in Hillsborough County and inspired him to go into law enforcement.

Tampa police Maj. Ronald McMullen points to white officers who play basketball with black children or help them with homework. Such efforts were few when he began 27 years ago.

Still, he is troubled by suggestions that racism is ingrained in police work. He wants more attention paid to black-on-black crime and education.

"I don't want to talk about what happened to us 400 years ago," he said. "I want to talk about what happened four days ago or four hours ago.

"I just want to get to the point where we can sit down and honestly talk about race without all this discord," he said. "If you honestly fear me, tell me why."

• • •

Officers on both sides of the bay said the shootings of peers in Dallas and Baton Rouge have sparked concern, even fear. They think more about the danger of their jobs, even if they doubt the danger has increased.

But they also see citizens reaching out to them in solidarity and compassion, sometimes in little ways.

Last week, St. Petersburg Officer LeNard Cox said, he and colleagues on a DUI enforcement unit ate at an Italian restaurant on 62nd Avenue N. Patrons paid for their appetizers.

Later, they stopped at a get-together at Ninth Avenue S and 22nd Street where people were smoking cigars and listening to music. A woman offered to buy them ribs and gave them sour cream cake, Cox's favorite.

"I'm a human being first," Cox said. "I'm a police officer. And I'm a black police officer."

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com.