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Council member felt threatened by message from St. Petersburg police union chief

Council member Darden Rice said a text message from the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association president included "vaguely worded threats." Other council members disagreed.
Protesters and police faced off outside St. Petersburg police headquarters on May 31.
Protesters and police faced off outside St. Petersburg police headquarters on May 31. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jul. 13, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — On the eighth day of protests in St. Petersburg, police officer and union president Jonathan Vazquez sent a text message to council members.

Officers and executive staff, he wrote, “ALL wanted to let the elected officials and stakeholders in the city know they see who is standing with and supporting the police and those who are NOT supporting the police. Actions speak louder then (sic) words.” Vazquez said they all supported those peacefully protesting.

The Tampa Bay Times acquired the text message through a public records request. Most Council members who responded to the text message did so positively, replying with words of encouragement. One Council member, Darden Rice, said afterward that she thought the message amounted to “vaguely worded threats.”

“I didn’t feel a threat of bodily harm. It felt like a political warning,” Rice said. “It kind of seemed like the underlying message was that you guys better stay in your lane.”

Vazquez, president of the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association and a St. Petersburg Police K-9 officer, said he didn’t mean it that way. He said “morale was in the dumps” at the time among the rank and file officers, because “This was when protesters were screaming vile things and yelling untrue things for our particular officers. We’re not in Minneapolis.”

He said his officers wanted to know: “Where’s the leadership that’s always supported us? Are they here? Are they vocal? Do they support us?”

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Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association President Jonathan Vazquez sent this text message to St. Petersburg City Council members on Saturday, June 6, 2020.
Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association President Jonathan Vazquez sent this text message to St. Petersburg City Council members on Saturday, June 6, 2020. [ City of St. Petersburg ]

Vazquez sent the text message after a week of angry and raw protests that drew dozens and sometimes hundreds to the police station, where protesters shouted at times nasty and vitriolic things at officers who stood by stoically. It was a complete pivot from earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, he said, when first responders were hailed for their work.

“You go from hero to zero in a minute,” Vazquez told the Times last week. “That’s a huge switch of emotions.”

Kalfani Ture, who spent five years as a sworn officer in Georgia before becoming an assistant professor of criminal justice at Quinnipiac University and a senior ethnography fellow at Yale, said the text message fits into the theme of “blue fragility.” That’s when police officers tend to take criticisms of policing personally and become defensive of the institution. Sometimes blue fragility manifests by disengaging from civil discourse, he said. Sometimes it means mass call-outs or work stoppages. Sometimes it means making threats.

Unions, he said, “represent blue fragility in its most solidified form,” by working to expand and protect the rights of officers and, when those rights are threatened, quell reform. Within that context, Ture said, the message carries a threatening undertone.

“I read it and it seems somewhat innocuous, and it seems innocent, but then at a second glance, you think ‘Woah, this is clearly a subtle threat,’” Ture said. “If actions are louder than words, then I’m being surveilled, you’re monitoring me, and the logical ending is that there are going to be consequences.”

Vazquez said his union isn’t the kind to organize a “blue flu,” where officers would call out sick en masse to make a point. He said he doesn’t support “bad cops,” who he said cause him headaches as union president and make his profession “look like trash.”

He pointed out that on Thursday, he backed a plan to begin sending social services workers to certain nonviolent calls. The Community Assistance Liaison program will be paid for by nearly $7 million that was originally going to be used to hire 25 more officers.

He said that’s an example of “how we’re going to do things differently here in St. Pete.” Ture said it was a “good step.”

“We’re not the national narrative that’s out there,” Vazquez said. “We’re not the rhetoric people are talking about. We’re a good progressive agency. We’re not the bad guys. We’re squared away here in St. Pete.”

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Most council members’ understanding of the text message was how Vazquez intended.

Council member Gina Driscoll said the message had a “menacing” tone, but dismissed it because it came early on in the protests, when protesters and police were face to face and the energy was charged.

“So if you take away the tone and you think about the context — we’re in the middle of these protests — it’s understandable that someone might text something in a more emotional way than they normally would,” Driscoll said. “The real message I interpreted was ‘We really need to see support from everyone.’”

Council member Robert Blackmon, who met Vazquez while campaigning last year and has since formed a friendship, as well as Council members Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and Amy Foster said they understood the message was about low morale and that officers wanted to know their government and elected officials had their backs.

“I saw nothing threatening about it,” Blackmon said.

Council member Brandi Gabbard wrote in a text message to the Times that she has never felt threatened by Vazquez.

“These are difficult times for both sides and sometimes things can be misconstrued especially via text,” she said. “I find that when we can all give each other the grace to express our concerns constructively we can come to a better outcome for all.”

Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders said she “didn’t know what that meant, and I didn’t know how to take it.” She declined to comment further.

Council member Ed Montanari did not return calls for comment.

Police Chief Anthony Holloway also said he didn’t see a threat, and that officers wanted to know city leaders had their backs while they were “being beat up by the community.” Spokesman Ben Kirby said Mayor Rick Kriseman couldn’t comment because “He is focused on some bigger issues right now.”

Ture said police unions have amassed so much political power — partly because tough-on-crime candidates seek the union endorsement — that they can make veiled threats without contrition or concern for backlash.

Rice, a likely 2021 mayoral candidate, viewed the message as the union throwing its political weight around. She said she texted back for clarification but didn’t receive a response from Vazquez.

“It’s really tone deaf,” she said.

Vazquez apologized if that’s how Rice took the message. “If that was her true feeling about it, I wish she would have called me.”

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Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

HOW TO SUPPORT: Whether you’re protesting or staying inside, here are ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.

WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.

WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.

HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.