It has been for a long time… We all heard about the public “closed door meeting” described in the Tampa Bay Times’ March 12 article “Tensions high between black, white officers in St. Petersburg Police Department” where many senior black St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD) officers raised concerns about the upcoming round of promotions, a lack of communication, a disregard for African-American leadership, department atmosphere and the inconsistent application of agency policies for black and white officers.
Some there said it started with former Mayor Bill Foster and former Chief Chuck Harmon (and now interim Chief DeKay), giving the Police Benevolence Association (PBA) union too much influence. That really is not where this story starts. To understand what is going on now, you need to know what came before. Not as far back as the “Courageous Twelve” who in 1965 along with James B. Sanderlin’s help successfully sued SPPD to allow black police officers the right to patrol in white neighborhoods and arrest white criminals.
No, the seeds of this storm were sown in August 1990 when Ernest “Curt” Curtsinger, a 27-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, was hired as the new chief of SPPD after an exhaustive national search.
Curtsinger was very popular with much of St Petersburg for his very effective community policing model, which gave each neighborhood association a dedicated problem solver. His directive to “color outside the lines” was a stark contrast to the highly disciplined department groomed by Chiefs Purdy (FBI), Morgan and Vines (all of whose influence is still seen today); his cowboy “kick ass and take names” mentality was welcomed by many.
However, he also cut off ties with the black community, disregarded accusations of police brutality and ended cultural sensitivity training, what he considered “white bashing.” One of Curtsinger’s first actions was to move then Assistant Chief Goliath Davis from overseeing the Patrol Division where he had the power to influence the treatment of blacks in the community to the Training Division where officially he did not.
In response to outcries, Curtsinger publicly announced an “affirmative action” promotion of Cedric Gordon to Lieutenant, supposedly to appease the black community. To Cedric Gordon’s credit, even with that target on his back, he rose to the rank of assistant chief and recently retired, though he is still active in the community.
Curtsinger’s actions, crude language and propensity to make “Leroy” jokes, polarized the SPPD. His lack of cultural awareness and understanding raised racial anxiety to new heights both in the department and to some extent the entire City of St Petersburg. In the SPPD, white officers perceived the promotion of black officers as special treatment, while black officers viewed their discipline and lack of promotions as discrimination.
Those perceptions are still common today. Eventually members of the community, the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Baptist Ministers’ Conference, and the Federation of Inner-City Organization all demanded Curtsinger’s termination. They argued that Curtsinger had so polarized the community that a major race riot was likely. The city agreed.
February 28, 1992, interim City Manager Don McRae, an African-American, who happened to be a mentor of Goliath Davis and Godfather to one of his sons, fired Curtsinger. Within an hour a white, mostly male crowd, characterized as a lynch mob, stormed City Hall while parading a casket with McRae’s name on it. SPPD had to surround and remove McRae. For the next few years lawsuits and a highly contested election further polarized the city, giving rise and strength to militant voices in the black community.
Another nationwide search brought in a highly regarded, intelligent police chief by the name of Daryl Stephens. However, Stephens’ intelligence was caricatured by Curtsinger loyalists who undermined his tenure. Try as he might, Stephens could not undo the damage done to a once disciplined and highly regarded police force, nor repair relations with the black community, a faction of which spoke militantly and vehemently about keeping an untrusted SPPD out of their neighborhoods.
Then Thurs., October 24, 1996, smoke filled the sky in St. Petersburg. SPPD Officer James Knight and his partner Sandra Minor executed a traffic stop on a suspected stolen vehicle, which ultimately turned out not to be stolen. The driver of this vehicle, Tyron Lewis, a teenage black male, pulled over to the side of the road. Allegedly Tyron Lewis did not obey Knight’s instructions and lurched his vehicle at a slow speed towards Knight, who had stepped in front to block his exit. Knight drew his weapon and then fired at least three shots. Lewis was critically injured and later died. That started the 1996 St. Petersburg Race Riots.
Soon thereafter Stephens resigned at the request of the city, and Davis was tapped to keep the peace between the SPPD and black community. Davis possessed a Ph.D. in criminology and was decades ahead of his time when it came to the drug war and its role in the mass incarceration of people of color. He made great strides in keeping the peace; however, his term was mired in resistance and strife from drug warriors, the remaining Curtsinger advocates, as well as the PBA and the recently hired officers they influenced.
Eventually Goliath Davis retired from the SPPD on his own terms and later served as deputy mayor. In the end, he was a lightning rod when it came to racial issues and was publicly fired by Mayor Foster at the request of local radio personality, Bubba the Love Sponge.
Present day, Chief Harmon recently retired after over a decade of essentially avoiding publicity. The deaths of three officers in a short period took a personal toll on him and many mid to senior officers and may have hastened their departures. Chief Harmon’s focus was policy and procedure, and as a centrist he suffered criticism by the PBA for caving to the black officers and community and was criticized by senior black officers for caving to the union and the Foster administration. Chief DeKay is the Interim Chief while the city conducts a nationwide search.
The state of the union for the SPPD is mixed at best. Recent public claims of discrimination towards black officers in regards to advancement, culture and respect are privately confirmed by some white officers and denied by some black officers.
Regardless of what the facts are, the perceptions are real and the ghost of Curtsinger still haunts the department. It is possible that much of the discrimination and/or perception thereof will dissipate as the older officers retire. However, we need to deal with problems in the here and now.
SPPD desperately needs a new headquarters; the current station is the one that used to have separate restrooms for blacks and whites. Outdated hiring standards are turning away most of the best new candidates. Most officers are not allowed to use email to communicate with the public. Sixty-one percent of SPPD officers no longer live in the city and thus don’t have a personal stake in the community. Many of those officers may be contributing to an “us versus them” attitude that is alienating the black community and strengthening the “stop snitching” phenomenon.
Additionally, with 61 percent of the salaries being spent elsewhere, St. Petersburg is losing over one billion dollars out of the local economy over the next 30 years. Imagine St. Petersburg with an extra billion dollars in the local economy and 300 additional police officers and their vehicles in our neighborhoods 24/7.
Many mid to senior officers left in the last decade and as soon as the current senior officers retire (many can now) there will be a serious experience gap left at SPPD. Like any bureaucracy, some officers may have risen to the position of their least competence. Attending neighborhood meetings in predominantly black neighborhoods or a quick scan of the SPPD blog on LEOAFFAIRS.com demonstrates that there are severe issues with the ability of a number of SPPD officers to interact with the black community.
Arrest records show blacks are disproportionately being arrested for drug crimes; in some cases as much as 5:1 for crimes whites commit at the same rate. Almost 25 percent of all African Americans in St Pete are convicted felons and are legally subjected to housing, education and employment discrimination.
A Succession Plan and Climate Survey are needed immediately. Without these tools and institutional knowledge, there will be no way for a prospective chief to self-assess his or her own ability to fix the department or for City Hall to evaluate their strategy to overcome all these challenges.
Regardless if you believe that discrimination or favoritism happens today in the SPPD, the perceptions definitely exist, especially to the highly tenured officers. Regardless, the solutions are the same: Transparency, Communication, Team Building, and Education. In the end, anyone not willing to work together toward the common good needs to be shown the door. Chaos reigns today, battle lines are being drawn, regrettable things are being said and fear fueling imaginations are trumping reason.
What SPPD needs most right now is the healing it has needed for over 20 years, not war. Everything I have seen and experienced from this new City Hall leads me to believe that they are going to “Do the Right Thing.” My only criticism would be to accelerate the Climate Survey and Succession Plan. The decision makers will need to know how deep the puddle is in order to fill it in.