ST. PETERSBURG — A distinguished panel of law enforcement and community leaders, organized by St. Petersburg College’s Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions, met with concerned citizens last week to discuss whether Pinellas County could be the next Ferguson, Cleveland or Baltimore. Held at the St. Petersburg College Allstate Campus, about 200 people came to voice their opinions last Thurs., Sept. 17.
Bay News 9’s senior anchor Al Ruechel served as the moderator, and remarked that civil unrest has already visited St. Petersburg in the form of riots when police shot and killed TyRon Lewis back in 1996.
St. Petersburg Chief of Police Anthony Holloway is looking to establish more trust between the police and the community, and to get past racial bias. One solution is to have all police officers trained in a Department of Justice course that teaches them to leave their bias at home after they put on their police uniform. So far this year, 63 percent of the St. Petersburg police force has been trained in this course.
He also discussed recruiting more minorities to the force, and the implementation of monitoring police traffic stops to make sure that individuals are pulled over for legitimate reasons.
Holloway is proud of the feedback he received after requiring officers to spend an hour every week introducing themselves to the communities they serve. He assured that if an officer does something out of line, they will be dealt with appropriately and poor behavior will not be tolerated.
“We have to work together, and just because one officer does something wrong, don’t blame all the officers in law enforcement,” said Holloway.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri explained that there are no double standards between police behavior and individuals not employed in law enforcement. While police need to be held accountable for their wrongdoings, the citizens of St. Petersburg have to live by the same code.
He explained that there are some 7,000 people in the county in some form of custody status. Gualtieri’s goal is to reduce recidivism and help people successfully re-entering into the community.
Pastor Clarence Williams of Greater Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church focused on what he thought prevented police/community solutions.
“Until we have serious, meaningful dialogue between people that may not look like you, and may not have your perspective, I don’t think we’re ever going to move toward positive solutions,” Williams said.
He feels that the degradation and the destruction of the family along with the lack of education, the systemic process of denying education, poverty, unemployment and bad public policy “begin to build a society that is open for what I believe is extortion. It becomes a preying ground for the worst of the worst to exist.”
State Attorney Bernie McCabe focused on gun laws and the different perceptions of police and citizens. He said that we are now living in a gun culture and we’re headed back to the wild, Wild West.
McCabe explained the reason officers have the quick to shoot reaction is because their perception is that everyone is carrying a gun, and their first concern is survival.
“That’s the gun culture… Why are young people carrying guns? Because the next young guy is caring a gun and they need it for protection. That’s what we’ve created with this gun culture,” McCabe averred.
The last panelist, Dr. William Law, president of St. Petersburg College, placed emphasis on educating the community and doing whatever is possible to get people to work.
During the question and answer period, cellphone videos were brought up. McCabe said there are instances when the video shows something different than what the report states, but he feels that seeing is not always believing.
“You have to understand that the rate of vision on a cellphone camera is very narrow…It doesn’t always hear what’s being said, so I do not consider it to be absolute proof of anything,” he said.
McCabe and Holloway both have problems with body cameras. Holloway brought up privacy issues stating that anyone can view the video; all they have to do is ask.
He feels that human error will also work against the police. If an officer fails to turn the camera on in the beginning, the first question asked will be what is he or she trying to hide. Holloway also remarked that the field of vision is a hindrance.
When asked if Pinellas County is one incident away from being a Ferguson or a Baltimore, McCabe empathically said, “No.” However, a more in touch Williams said if you had asked a person from Baltimore if they were one incident away from Ferguson, most likely they would have said no also.
“I don’t think anyone can judge how a community will react based on reactions of another community…I believe the volatility of a situation like that really depends on how forthcoming law enforcement is, the facts in the case and the particular climate and culture of the community.”
Gualtieri’s comments agreed with McCabe.
“It’s not going to happen here. We’re prepared… What happened 20-plus years ago in St. Petersburg, that’s not going to happen today,” Gualtieri said.
The conversation turned to the no snitching culture in some communities. An audience member said she witnessed a crime in her neighborhood and a police officer brought the assailant back to her house to be positively identified.
Not knowing all the facts, Gualtieri said the officer should have not brought the assailant back to her house. “Sometimes some cops do some things that aren’t very bright,” he said to cheers.
Holloway suggested using TIP411 to report a crime anonymously.