By Lauren Finn
How we can build trust within the community was the topic of conversation last Thursday night between the citizens of Pinellas County and a panel including Anthony Holloway, Chief of Police of the city of St. Petersburg; Bob Gualtieri, Pinellas County Sheriff; Bernie McCabe, State Attorney of Pinellas and Pasco County; Rev. Clarence Williams, Sr. pastor of Greater Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, and of course the President of St. Petersburg College, William Law Jr.
Police and Citizens Seeking Common Ground was the name of the event on September 17th. The conversation was held at the Allstate center in south St. Petersburg, which is known for in-service training for law enforcement. Al Ruechel, the moderator of the evening, opened by saying “This is a very big issue sweeping the country. This did not just happen last year; a lot of it came to light last year with names like Ferguson and Baltimore.” Ruechel reminded the audience that our area is not unfamiliar with rioting because of racial injustices. Riots occurred in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1996 following the shooting and death of an unarmed African American male teenage motorist during a police traffic stop.
The panel then delivered their thoughts and possible solutions. So why is it that the city continues to deal with these problems today? Lack of education and the family structure at home are a couple of points Rev. Williams discussed. Williams also mentioned topics such as “bad public policy” and the community “refusing to educate” its people.
In defense of the police officers, Mr. McCabe described the new generation as a “gun culture.” With guns becoming more accessible, police officers are forced to assume that every citizen might have a gun. McCabe also pointed a finger at the home life of teens committing crimes, stating “nobody tests you on the ability to raise that child”. The panel seemed inclined to believe home environment played the biggest role in addition to the lack of jobs for teenagers. Dr. Law stressed the importance of more jobs for adolescents.
Chief Holloway discussed several changes being made to ensure the safety of the community. A new program has been instilled in the department known as “Fair and Partial Policy”, which aims to get past racial bias. As of today, 63% of the force has completed and passed the course. Now during traffic stops, police officers must identify why they are stopping a car before even stepping out of the police vehicle, putting an end to unnecessary conflict. Holloway also informed the audience of a “Park, Walk, Talk” program that orders every police officer to walk around for 1 hour of their day to get to know the community. Also, moving away from an intimidating looking uniform, offering a “Second Chance” program for youth that has gotten into trouble, and dual enrolling high school students into police training are other elements put into place to push change in the right direction. At Lakewood High School there are seven students who have been selected to participate in this dual enrollment program.
Though the spotlight has been on officers, the panel affirms the responsibility the community has to fulfill their part. Sherriff Gualtieri said that identifying criminals or clues to crimes makes a huge difference. The panel as a whole agreed that simply caring and getting involved with the community, such as attending events like this one, can really help clear issues happening that need to be addressed.
The evening closed with questions from the audience that made a room lively with conversation. Everyone on the panel agreed that voting restoration for ex-felons should be easier to attain and The “Stand Your Ground” act was a move in the wrong direction. The possibility of a bill being passed that would allow students to have guns on campus made Dr. Law shake his head in disapproval. The topic of St. Petersburg officers wearing body cameras was not addressed with a straight answer. McCabe and Chief Holloway described them as being unneeded due to the lack of video quality and range along with the manipulation of footage being more common.
Overall, the evening was successful and provided information the community needed. With only a few unanswered questions by the audience, the majority left happy and satisfied. Like Sheriff Gualtieri said, “There is always room to be better” for the citizens of Pinellas county and its police officers.
Header photo from the St. Petersburg Police Depts Facebook page.