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Police chief, NAACP leader predict calmer minds would prevail in Tampa

Published Aug. 16, 2014

TAMPA — One Sunday two summers ago, a black teen was killed in a confrontation with police at an apartment complex a mile north of downtown Tampa.

Police Chief Jane Castor recalls her response. She walked through the complex, telling residents what she knew: Javon Neal, 16, had been armed with a shotgun. Officers defended themselves.

"As a mother, I can't imagine losing a child," she wrote days later to a Tampa newspaper that caters to black readers.

Like many people, Castor has been following the recent civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., where the Aug. 9 police shooting of a teen — this time, an unarmed 18-year-old — led to protests. The response by law enforcement looked like a war, with flash grenades and armored trucks.

She suspects that what happened in Ferguson would not happen in Tampa.

She'd like to think that her department's relationships in the community would bring more talk than fireworks. She calls the relationships a work in progress, fed by a continuing dialogue and ongoing efforts to educate officers about the importance of treating people with respect.

"I don't want to pass judgment on any other agency's enforcement tactics, because I'm not there and I don't know the entire story," she said of the St. Louis suburb.

"But if you are in a position where you have to show that level of force, then it's passed the tipping point."

The means for force are easily at hand in Tampa, as in many cities post- 9/11. The Police Department has an arsenal strengthened first by Homeland Security expenditures and then by the 2012 Republican National Convention. The city added an armored tank to its fleet amid fears of a reprise of violence from the 2008 convention in St. Paul, Minn.

Yet the RNC's most memorable security image out of Tampa was that of Assistant Chief John Bennett defusing a conflict with words. He squatted to talk with protesters whose blockade of an intersection had drawn officers in riot gear.

Tampa police wound up sharing their unused tear gas and munitions with other agencies.

But Castor says there are times that demand big guns.

One of them came in 2010, when police dragged out an older armored vehicle for the largest manhunt in the city's history, the search for a cop killer.

"I think there needs to be a definitive line drawn between the hunt for Dontae Morris and what is going on outside of St. Louis," Castor said. "With the hunt for Dontae Morris, we had an individual who had killed five people. The expectation that there could be a violent outcome was pretty high.

"When you're dealing with individuals who just want to express their viewpoint and exercise their First Amendment rights, your presence should be to facilitate that expression not to hamper it."

Carolyn Hepburn Collins, president of the Tampa branch of the NAACP, considers Castor to be proactive and accessible. The chief spoke Thursday night at an NAACP board meeting about the situation in Missouri.

Collins doesn't rule out the possibility that a Ferguson-like chain of events could occur in Tampa, but she said she leans toward believing that it wouldn't.

"If something like that were to happen," she said, referring to the shooting of Missouri teen Michael Brown, "people would be just as angry. But they may not be as quick to burn and loot. They would holler and scream, and then say, 'Let's talk.' "

The 1996 shooting of a black motorist by a white officer in St. Petersburg sparked two days of disturbances that included gunfire and burned buildings. TyRon Lewis, the motorist, was 18.

Collins cautions that there's still room to grow. She recently fielded three complaints that sound to her like instances of racial profiling by police in Tampa.

"What we cannot afford to do is confuse indications of trust with the fact that we have serious problems in law enforcement in Tampa and Hillsborough County, and much of it is because we have not truly worked out racial profiling and the discrimination processes that exist," Collins said.

Community activist Michelle Williams said she would like to see police officers equipped with body cameras, so that evidence exists of interactions.

Castor said that's not far away.

Williams said she would also like to see more black police officers. African-Americans make up at least 26 percent of the population in Tampa and about 14 percent of sworn police personnel, according to census and city statistics.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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