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Calls grow for action for retired Black Tampa police officer

“If I’m so celebrated, why can’t they right this historic wrong?” said Rufus Lewis, fighting for his police pension since 1983.
 
Retired Tampa police officer Rufus Lewis, a member of the Fearless Four, and his wife, Clara Lewis, leave the Tampa Police Department headquarters in downtown last month.
Retired Tampa police officer Rufus Lewis, a member of the Fearless Four, and his wife, Clara Lewis, leave the Tampa Police Department headquarters in downtown last month. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published March 18

TAMPA ― Rufus Lewis strode into the downtown Tampa police headquarters on the last Monday in February, past his portrait hanging in the lobby.

He took the elevator to the 10th floor. There, again, he was greeted by his portrait. Another tribute to his actions as a member of the Fearless Four ― Black officers who successfully sued the city for discrimination in 1974, ushering in new hiring and promotion practices.

It had been 10 days since the Tampa Bay Times had published a story about his decadeslong struggle to obtain his full retirement benefits. It revealed how, even as the city pays homage to his legacy, it has worked for years to deny him an in-the-line-of-duty pension after he was injured playing basketball while representing the department.

He’d been invited to the headquarters not to discuss the matter, but to collect another award: the department’s Black History Month badge.

“I’m grateful for the honor, of course,” Lewis, 80, told the Times. “But this is another example of their hypocrisy. If I’m so celebrated, why can’t they right this historic wrong?”

Since the story published, Lewis has heard from dozens of people, some of whom he hadn’t spoken to in years, cheering him on. Support has poured in from social media, with hundred calling on the city to review the situation.

The response from the city has been mute, save for the new badge and, a few days before, a social media post honoring the Fearless Four that swapped his first and last name.

“If it were up to me, just based on the kind of individual he is and his character and the service he’s provided to our community, I’d say yes,” said Tampa Mayor Jane Castor. “But that’s not the way that pensions are decided.”

Related: He retired from Tampa police in 1983. He’s still fighting for his pension.

Lewis, who joined Tampa police in 1967, was injured playing basketball while representing the department in 1980, part of a team organized to build community trust.

He says he was forced into early retirement in 1983 when his leg injuries persisted, the Times previously reported. Though the city initially categorized his injury as occurring in the line of duty, the pension board later disagreed, concluding that the basketball games were not an official job duty and effectively slashing his pension in half.

The nine-person board includes three members from both the city’s Fire Rescue and Police Department and three appointed by the mayor.

Lewis believes racism played a role. One pension board member would later abruptly retire from the department to avoid being fired for using a racial slur.

Tampa police officer Bobby Pennington was another member of the pension board that denied Lewis’ request to have his injury designated as in the line of duty.

Pennington told the Times he was ready to vote in favor of Lewis until the police chief at the time, Robert Smith, recommended that the injury be carried as nonjob-related. (Multiple efforts to reach Smith, who has since moved to Kentucky, were unsuccessful.)

“If Mr. Lewis could get his supervisor to say, ‘We told him to play in the game. It was an official community function,’” said Pennington, who retired from the force in 2003, “that would change everything.”

Lewis’ supervisor died two years ago.

Deputy Chief of community outreach and professional standards Calvin Johnson shows a badge being gifted to the Fearless Four retired Black Tampa officers for Black History Month.
Deputy Chief of community outreach and professional standards Calvin Johnson shows a badge being gifted to the Fearless Four retired Black Tampa officers for Black History Month. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The Police Department now requires officers engaging in sporting events to sign an injury waiver. Lewis said he had to sign no such record decades ago.

The four decades since Lewis’ retirement have brought only dashed hopes and continuous worry that he’s one unexpected bill from financial turmoil.

Relief came briefly in 1985. Lewis successfully sued the city, which was ordered to pay him disability benefits.

But the city successfully appealed.

After Lewis left the police force, he worked as a coach and mentor at Jefferson High School.

Jeff Rawlins was the assistant principal at the time. He came across the Times story last month.

“I can’t believe this,” he thought as he read. “This man is a Tampa hero.”

Though Rawlins had lost touch with Lewis years ago, he says not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of him. His courage, his resiliency. And the stories he’d shared about his time as an officer: The time he was called to a home that had been burglarized only to be asked to go to the back door not the front “because the back’s for coloreds.” Or arriving in full uniform only to be met with the query, “when will the real police officer arrive?”

Retired Tampa police officer Rufus Lewis, who is a member of the Fearless Four, leaves the Tampa Police Department headquarters in downtown Tampa on Feb. 26.
Retired Tampa police officer Rufus Lewis, who is a member of the Fearless Four, leaves the Tampa Police Department headquarters in downtown Tampa on Feb. 26. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Rawlins has since tried to drum up public pressure about Lewis’ pension, writing to community leaders, city department heads, the mayor’s office and the City Council.

“For the most part, I was met completely with crickets,” he said. “The city doesn’t want to be reminded of this ugly chapter of our history. They’ll pay homage to change-makers, but when it actually comes down to the nitty-gritty of righting the wrongs, they don’t do it.”

He briefly set up a GoFundMe, trying to raise money for Lewis, but Lewis asked him to take it down.

“He’s a proud man,” Rawlins said.

The story also found Diane Hobley-Burney, a 27-year veteran of the Tampa Police Department who now serves as chief of police in Fort Pierce, on Florida’s east coast.

She had driven back to Tampa for the 2021 unveiling of a monument to the Fearless Four, which dominates the downtown police headquarters. She was touched to see the public recognition of one of her heroes, someone she looked up to as a young, Black officer.

“Then to read this story about his struggles,” she said, “it was very disheartening.”

Retired Tampa police officer Rufus Lewis, left, shows a photograph of himself, in uniform and badge, that he keeps in his wallet to Deputy Chief of community outreach and professional standards Calvin Johnson at the Tampa Police Department headquarters.
Retired Tampa police officer Rufus Lewis, left, shows a photograph of himself, in uniform and badge, that he keeps in his wallet to Deputy Chief of community outreach and professional standards Calvin Johnson at the Tampa Police Department headquarters. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

In late February, on the 10th floor of the Tampa police headquarters, Lewis was greeted by Calvin Johnson, the city’s highest ranking Black officer. Now the deputy chief of community outreach and professional standards, Johnson joined the force 25 years ago.

He pulled out a small bag and presented Lewis with the new commemorative badge, golden and glinting in the light.

“We appreciate everything you’ve done for us,” Johnson said.

Lewis nodded.