Race Relations & the St. Petersburg PD

Mount Zion Progressive Church, located at 20th St. S., was a hotbed of activity last Tues., March 11. Nearly 125 African-American officers, staff and city activists showed up to shell out their concerns regarding lack of promotions, unfair discipline and disrespect aimed at the black staff members at the St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD).

Assistant Police Chief Luke Williams outlined the purpose for the meeting. The majority of the room was in agreement that there is a barrage of issues at SPPD, primarily concerning the treatment of African Americans on staff.

We need to, “be progressive and assure that each member of this community is treated with respect and the dignity that they each deserve,” stated Williams. “I think in some instances we’ve fallen a little short in that area.”

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, who acted as a go-between with the community and city hall, was all ears. The media was not permitted in the room, but could hear as one-by-one concerned citizens and staff members spoke out about the racial tension between the black and white personnel, which they believe increased under former Mayor Bill Foster’s tenure.

“Because of the prior administration there are some people that actually have been doing things that may not necessarily been within their purview,” said Williams who believes it is still continuing today. “Unfortunately as African-American supervisors and managers sometimes we get ostracized; we get backstabbed, and get people that stop going through the chain of command.”

Those in attendance spoke out about the interim Chief of Police David DeKay, who in January of this year was appointed as successor to retired Chief Chuck Harmon, and his alleged inability to straighten out the internal strife. Complaints ranged from black officers feeling as if they are held to different standards than their white counterparts, both on the job and when disciplinary action is taken, to a lack of communication with regards to high-ranking African-Americans being left out of the loop.

But the biggest outrage discussed at the meeting was the deficit in promotions among the African-American population in the department. With Chief DeKay announcing plans to appoint four officers to the ranks of sergeant and one to lieutenant next month, African-Americans on the staff are confident they will be overlooked again.

In February, roughly 530 officers were on active duty according to St. Petersburg police. Of those, 400 are white, with 59 ranking as sergeant or above, while some 75 officers are black, with 17 reporting for higher duty each day. And although the percentage scale tips in favor of African-Americans the group wants to know why during the last cycles of promotions no African Americans were considered.

“Unfortunately last time we had promotions there was no African-American representation,” said Major Matthew McKinney. “We’ve had extremely qualified, well-abled African-American females that should have and could have been promoted.”

But the written test to advance isn’t being taken by the majority of African-Americans on the squad. Of the estimated 100 officers who sat for the test, only six were black. And of the 36 overall being considered for sergeant, there are only three. They are ranked 22nd, 30th, and 32nd on the list. For the lieutenant position, the highest-ranking African-American officer is ranked fifth.

But after listening to the data of where the eligible African-Americans fall on the list, Tomalin didn’t say what the group members wanted to hear.

“If it’s an issue with the way the results came out, if we’re good with the test, but not good with the outcome, that’s not a reason to hold up promotions,” she said explaining that halting the naming of new sergeants and a lieutenant will also postpone the hiring of a new chief of police. Something that the African-American community dearly wants to see happen.

But as the night continued and after nearly 90 minutes of discussion Tomalin had heard what she needed to hear. Speaker after speaker accused the police union (PBA) of holding all the power and running the police department and soon they turned on newly elected Mayor Kriseman, wondering when he was going to step up. As Tomalin urged the crowd for their support with only 45 days in office under their belt, harsh words echoed throughout the room.

Chimurenga Waller, president of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement is pushing for Williams to be the new chief of police, citing he was brought in under the wing of former Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis. Waller wasn’t willing to buy what the deputy mayor was selling alluding to the history of St. Petersburg as his catalyst for action.

“We have to say this is what we want,” said Waller, “and if you say no to that, then we need to make sure consequences come about as a result.”

Others spoke out, some calmly, some with passion, a few with vehemence. The point became clear. The African-American community within the police department demanded their grievances be heard. So due to tensions that have been mounting for decades, Tomalin made a decision that calmed the room and pacified some of the outspoken.

“Just the fact that this issue makes our community feel as disrespected and contentious as it does, given the long history of being pummeled with race relations as it relates to our police department, these promotions cannot happen,” she said to a crowd of cheers and applause. Tomalin continued to praise Kriseman and his efforts toward equality in the community, his goal of a seamless city, and asked for patience.

“We shouldn’t draw false boundaries and mount up against the man who has our best interest,” she urged.

Kriseman was not in attendance, but issued a statement concerning the allegations toward the promotion process in the SPPD, officially delaying pending promotions until an independent review can be made.

His stance on the issue was made clear in his correspondence, “Neither misconduct nor baseless allegations will be tolerated by my administration,” Kriseman wrote.So for now, the promotions are put on hold and all parties await a solution to the alleged race relations amongst the SPPD personnel and a clearer idea of the promotions process within.

To reach Holly Kestenis, email hkestenis@theweeklychallenger.com.

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