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Tampa police struggling with trust in black neighborhoods marred by violence

Tampa police Officer Jerry Wyche chats with 3-year-old Aaliyah Wilson as her mother, Shemil Threatts, watches. Wyche has been walking the Robles Park housing complex in Tampa for two years, trying to connect with the residents and build trust.
Published Mar. 6, 2016

TAMPA — In the midst of a violent 2015, Tampa police Capt. Ronald McMullen stood solemnly before a row of television cameras.

Detectives needed help solving the city's latest murder: Sharon Watkins, a 58-year-old grandmother killed in her sleep on June 27 by a stray bullet fired in a gang feud.

Her death was the city's 21st homicide in six months, almost double the toll from 2014. Most of the victims were African-Americans, the wave of violence coming as other black communities nationally were reeling from police shootings that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.

McMullen, however, did more than deliver the usual plea for the public's help. The captain called out people in Tampa's black neighborhoods for failing to help.

"We all often say, you know, when it hits an innocent person, maybe the community will help. …," he said, noting that residents at homicide scenes often ask police "what are we doing about it?"

"But now the tables are turned: What are you doing about it, folks?"

McMullen's unusual challenge revealed frustrations at the highest levels of the Tampa Police Department: Were people too scared, too complacent, too recalcitrant, to help?

Or was the real problem that some black residents just don't trust their police officers?

• • •

Life Malcolm tells stories about watching officers carry batons into a child's bounce house in Robles Park, or of being stopped while taking a morning walk in his neighborhood because he looked "suspicious."

And then there is the tangled tale of his 2014 arrest — a story that began with a Facebook photo of his cancer-stricken family dog and led to a dispute with an animal control officer and his arrest by Tampa police. It ended with a jury finding him not guilty of animal cruelty charges.

A tall man, Malcolm, 41, sports a long beard and dreadlocks over a neck tattoo of the African continent. Between gigs as a spoken word poet, he attends the University of South Florida. The father of two has his sights set on a career as a lawyer.

He talks about the times he felt singled out by police. He says he has feared for his life in their presence. He sees them as a contributing factor to the violence — not as the solution.

"If you sneeze wrong or you walk wrong," Malcolm said, "the police are on you."

So when he needed the police the most — when he was cradling his 18-year-old son, Lyfe Coleman, after he had been fatally shot in their yard on Jan. 5, 2015 — the father, instead, shunned them.

"My son's blood," Malcolm said, "didn't wash away their sins."

Coleman was the city's first homicide victim in 2015. More than 1,000 people attended his funeral at New Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. On the fifth of each month since, Malcolm has hosted a memorial gathering at the spot where his son fell, on Jefferson Street, which the father has dubbed Young Lyfe Lane.

Malcolm said he knows who killed his son. He said the police know, too. Yet no one has come forward to help police make a case, and the father said he knows why.

His own experiences — unfriendly encounters with officers, being repeatedly stopped, his arrest and acquittal — have convinced him not to trust the police.

Barbara Turner understands where he's coming from.

Her 16-year-old son, Jamylin, was shot and killed while playing basketball on March 14 in the same Robles Park neighborhood where Coleman was shot.

Jamylin had never been in trouble, his mother said. His mother believes he was killed because he was seen in the wrong neighborhood. Jamylin did not belong to a gang, she said, but that may not have mattered to whoever killed him.

Police pleaded for help solving Jamylin's murder. They're still waiting for that help.

"I understand it, because maybe people are scared," Turner said. "I think they don't trust police and they're scared of retaliation. …

"I can't say if I wasn't the mom of a slain teen I wouldn't be scared, too."

Long before she lost her son, Turner, a mother of 13, said her family has had bad experiences with police.

"I do feel like the police department does stereotype black males," Turner said. "But personally, the detective on my case has been good."

That detective updates her frequently. He says the police are doing everything they can to solve her son's murder.

Ever since Jamylin's murder, she has noticed a difference in how officers treat her. Once, she was pulled over for a driving a car with an expired tag.

An officer noticed her son's obituary lying in the passenger seat. The officer told her that Jamylin was an amazing young man.

"It's not the whole police department," Turner said. "It's just certain individuals who do bad things."

• • •

When Eric Ward took over as Tampa police chief last year, he found himself fighting two different fires:

He had to tamp down the violence in the city's predominantly black neighborhoods, and he had to built trust between his department and those neighborhoods.

That became complicated in the wake of reports of racial disparities in the police department's issuance of bicycle citations, and a subsequent U.S. Department of Justice review of ticketing practices.

As spring turned to summer, the city's efforts to curb violence began to pay off. Recreation centers were told to stay open longer to keep kids off the streets. Police stepped up patrols in neighborhoods that saw the worst of it. And they made repeated pleas for the public's help.

But the silence continued.

Last year was the city's worst murder toll in 12 years, yet no arrest has been made in 20 of the 34 homicides that took place. The lack of trust seems to complicate the way police do their jobs every day.

Ward knows that when most people encounter his officers, they're not having a good day. They may have just been stopped, or pulled over, or called 911 to report a crime.

That's why it's crucial, the chief said, for people to see officers doing more than just responding to calls.

So he started a new policy of engagement: Get officers out of their cars, talking to people, playing ball with kids in the park. Since May, he has worked to change the way the department measures the performance of officers — developing a system that gives officers credit for more than just arrests and citations.

Ward, the second African-American police chief in city history, has lofty goals. He tells officers that when they make an arrest, the level of courtesy and professionalism they present should be such that the person arrested will thank them afterward.

Will that strategy pay off? Ward said he has already seen progress.

The chief gave out thousands of business cards, all bearing his personal cellphone number, at community meetings. When Elkino Watson, a University of South Florida football player, was stabbed to death in September, the chief said a citizen called him directly.

The tipster said they knew who was responsible. By the end of the day, police convinced the suspect to turn himself in.

"I think enhancing or building that community outreach is the key to solving our crime fight," Ward said. "The community has to see law enforcement as not only the forces of law, but as human."

• • •

One sunny afternoon in December, Tampa police Officer Jerry Wyche stepped over cracked pavement between concrete-block buildings in a Robles Park public housing complex, past graffiti-filled walls proclaiming "black power" and littered, weed-choked patches of dirt.

The African-American officer stopped to hand out lollipops to five boys and two girls.

A boy reached up and slapped his hand against Wyche's bullet-resistant vest. Small hands also touched the handcuffs and baton hanging from his belt. Their parents watched from across courtyards.

"Do you take people to jail?" one child asked.

"I take people to jail who make bad choices," Wyche, 36, said. "That's why you've got to make good choices."

Wyche has spent two years walking through Robles Park. It's part of his daily beat. Now it's part of the police chief's plan to build trust between his department and black neighborhoods.

The officer's mission is not to make arrests or issue tickets. He's there to talk to people, to get to know the residents that live here, especially the children.

Establishing that kind of connection with black residents was one of Ward's top priorities when he became police chief last year. The chief wants his force to adopt Wyche's methods.

Part of that approach means overlooking minor violations. While on patrol, Wyche saw a woman throw an empty chips bag to the curb. He told her not to litter, but didn't cite her.

"It kind of throws everybody off," he said. "But people like it because it shows that you care."

When he started his foot patrol, Wyche said three out of every four people he spoke to didn't want to talk to him. Some even called him an "Uncle Tom." Residents told him he doesn't understand their struggles.

Wyche listens. He doesn't tell them he grew up in public housing. He doesn't explain that he has extended family that turned to crime to get by. He doesn't talk about the cousin he lost to violence, shot and killed four years ago in South Florida.

He explains that he's there to protect their neighborhood — not harass or make people uncomfortable. During his patrols, black residents often ask him this:

Why is he a police officer?

"Because I hope," Wyche said. "Because I believe it will get better."

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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