ST. PETERSBURG — Last month, two retired St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD) officers held a public Black Lives Matter forum at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church, 301 37th St. S., sponsored by the church’s Brotherhood Ministry. Moderator Ernie Coney introduced the two speakers, retired Detective Michael Hawkins and retired Assistant Police Chief Cedric Gordon.
Gordon and Hawkins each had a police career spanning more than 30 years.
The two speakers took very different approaches to addressing the topics of racial tensions and public interactions with police officials. Hawkins, who spoke first, focused on the need for increased education among African-American communities and what he said was a lack of respect for authority, especially among younger generations.
“Before there is a confrontation with police … we at the home have to get back to our roots,” Hawkins said. “We have to start at home, at the church, at our community centers and all those other places to get the children to where they respect not only the police but elders.”
Hawkins gave the example of working with elementary schools and responding to many instances of “first, second and third graders cursing out, fighting and doing things to teachers that were uncalled for.”
He also focused on interactions with police that might have had better outcomes had perpetrators spoken and acted with civility.
“When you’re approached by an officer, it is good to not get into a confrontation at that time,” Hawkins said. “And if it comes to a problem where there’s abuse involved, you can get legal advice and go after someone civilly. But the problem we run into is that this generation wants to be confrontational on everything.”
Hawkins presented statistics that focused on black-on-black crime, stating that African Americans—like all ethnic groups, Gordon later added—cause the most crime against their own people. He added that media attention focuses on white-on-black crime for its newsworthy value, despite the higher number of same-race crimes that occur without sparking national attention. “They don’t care about us, the media,” Hawkins said.
Although Gordon also touched on the topics of media attention, education and black-on-black crime, he took a different angle. Media and some police officials, he said, use the statistics of black-on-black crime almost to excuse police brutality against minorities.
“Black education is a problem,” Gordon said. “Single motherhood for African Americans is a problem. All of these social issues are a problem.”
However, he said, these issues are often used to detract from the larger issue at hand: police not being held accountable for their actions.
“We have a moral responsibility, an obligation, to speak out in a constructive way when [law enforcement officials] are wrong,” Gordon said. “No one should be against law enforcement, but we all should be against officers who abuse their authority. Good law enforcement, progressive law enforcement, welcomes constructive feedback.”
Gordon cited several well-publicized cases of white police officers killing unarmed black men, including those of Mike Brown and Eric Gardner. Such cases, he said, are representative of how law enforcement, “who are paid—with our tax dollars—to protect us,” get away with crimes where other citizens would have been prosecuted.
“Because of these types of cases all over America, we’ve seen a revolution with people of all races and backgrounds saying ‘enough is enough,’ but importantly, they’re not just saying it with their words, they’re saying it with their actions,” Gordon said. “They’re marching, they’re protesting and they’re saying that black lives matter. And they’re demanding change.”
Gordon cited statistics as well, but he focused on bias-based profiling and the disparate numbers of blacks and whites sentenced to prison.
“Why do we need change,” Gordon asked the crowd. “We need change because there are more than 246,000 Florida state prison inmates serving time on drug charges. And out of that 246,000, 140,000 of them are black—that’s approximately 60 percent. Yet in Florida, we only make up 16 percent of the population.”
Nationally, Gordon cited, 13 percent of the population is African American, yet black males between the ages of 20 and 39 represent 34 percent of U.S. inmates. He added that 15 percent of the African American voting population has lost their right to vote due to felony convictions.
Gordon also referred to a Tampa Bay Times article stating that while the proportion of marijuana use among black and white teenagers is the same, black youth are seven times as likely as their white counterparts to be arrested in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
“We see the disparities in administration, the death penalty, in incarceration, the shootings of African- American males by law enforcement officers,” Gordon said.
The United States police force, Gordon cautioned, are a “historically racist” institution with much more power than most citizens.
“Law enforcement officers are the most powerful people in this country,” Gordon said. “They can do two things that no one else can do: they can take your life and they can take your freedom. They can do it right here, right now. They can be the judge, jury and executioner.”
In the courthouse, Gordon said, a police officer is automatically granted more credibility than defendants and witnesses.
“They come from society and five percent are bad, just like any other job—but five percent can ruin your life. Five percent can cause you to spend every dime you’ve got to prove that you didn’t do something that they said you did. Five percent is too many.”
Gordon emphasized the importance of holding law enforcement accountable for their actions and demanding police force diversity.
“In law enforcement … minorities use less force than white males, by far,” Gordon said. “That means it’s imperative that we have our law enforcement agencies be diverse all throughout the ranks, people who look like you and I.”
He also gave tips on how to interact with police, particularly speaking to the level of cooperation necessary when dealing with law enforcement. While he encouraged being polite if pulled over, he added, “it is your constitutional right” to withhold consent for a vehicular search.
“Voting is extremely important” for police interactions, Gordon said. “Politics is in everything—in your house, in your church—and politicians decide who gets what and how much. When you vote, you vote for the share, you vote for a mayor who will appoint a police chief, you vote for legislatures who make laws like Stand Your Ground.”
His final piece of advice was that “protests work.”
After Gordon’s address, both he and Hawkins spent one hour answering questions from the audience.