ST. PETERSBURG – “This has to be the safest place in St. Pete this evening,” said Reuben C. Hepburn, the new principal of Gibbs High School.
Hepburn was addressing a crowd of civilians and law enforcement in Gibbs’ cafeteria Tues., Jan 27 for a meeting of the minds between citizens and the police department.
Hosted by Chief of Police Anthony Holloway, small groups of residents had a chance to sit down with members of the police department and ask questions and air grievances.
Before the breakout sessions, Mayor Rick Kriseman spoke briefly on repairing the broken relationship with the police and residents. “Tonight is the first step in trying to fix what’s been broken for a while; to repair a relationship that at one time was good,” he said adding that one of the first steps he took in reconciling the broken relationship was to hire a police chief that understood how to relate to the community.
Last month after backing out of a community forum organized by the Uhuru Movement, Holloway formed an ad hoc committee and held his own forum at the police station. During that meeting concerns were brought up such as a diversion program for nonviolent youth offenders, recruiting more minorities and stopping excessive and harassing traffic stops.
Holloway wanted everyone to know that he listened in that last meeting and has worked to put measures in place. For his answer to officers excessively stopping someone because they fit a profile:
“We are going to explain why we are stopping you and be more professional at the same time. Also, we are going to put a database together so when a young man or woman is stopped, no matter what race they are, if we stop you more than 10 times that will send an alert up the chain of command,” he explained.
“There is no one in this room that can tell me you haven’t made a mistake in your life,” said Holloway, as he described a new program in place that will divert young nonviolent offenders from the juvenile justice system. “When you do something on a Tuesday, we’ll have you working on a Saturday.”
He added that while the offending youth is working, he or she would be visited by a social service worker to get them back on the right track.
A huge concern at the December meeting was that there are not enough African-American officers policing the black community. Holloway explained a new program being implemented at Lakewood High School that will allow students to take an introduction to criminal justice and a law module. If they pass they are on their way to the academy. They will also receive high school and college credits.
Once the breakout sessions started, citizens were able to sit down and voice their concerns to police officers and other city officials. They were encouraged to write down any ideas that were then collected at the end of the night.
At one table, Barbara Burnett of the Thaise Educational & Exposure Tours informed Major Jorge Sotolongo about her program and encouraged him to pass on the information. The Thaise program works with at-risk youth and their families to keep youth in their homes, in school, off the streets and out of jail.
At another table Veatrice Farrell explained to Major Phillip Beahn and Officer J. Harris how she was pulled over for speeding and ended up getting tased. When she complained to the Office of Professional Standards, they told her that it was the officer’s discretion to tase her.
From table to table, lively discussions were in the air. Chief Holloway announced that they will hold another meeting in either May or June to address the night’s concerns. The location has not yet been established.