Did St. Pete police blackball a crime watch leader?

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Matthew Culp, left, and his partner Wade Burghardt stand in front of a renovated home in St. Petersburg's Palmetto Park neighborhood

In many ways, St. Petersburg resident Matthew Culp could be considered a model citizen.

Three years ago, he bought and rehabilitated a home in Palmetto Park, one of St. Pete’s rougher neighborhoods. He’s heavily involved in the Palmetto Park Neighborhood Association and the local crime watch. He’s bought other dilapidated properties to ease blight in the area. He has a spotless criminal record and participates in community events.

So when Culp applied to the city’s Citizens Police Academy — an 8-week course designed to give residents a better understanding of the police department — he never imagined he would be denied. But last week, St. Petersburg Police Department spokesman Bill Proffitt called Culp to say he would not be allowed to attend the course this spring.

SPPD spokesman Proffitt declined to discuss his decision to reject Culp, except to say, “The police report speaks for itself.”

Which police report is that?

You may remember Culp from CL’s story back in August 2006. On May 21, 2006, a local drug dealer threw concrete chunks through the windows of Culp’s home. Culp responded by emptying his personal handgun into the ground outside his home. Police arrived, alerted to the shots, and no charges were filed, but police claim Culp used a racial slur while explaining what happened. After police left, a man paid off by local drug dealers threw a Molotov cocktail at Culp’s home.

That firebombing proved to be the final salvo for Culp and several neighborhood activists across St. Pete, who loudly criticized Mayor Rick Baker and Police Chief Chuck Harmon for a blasé attitude on crime. In several media accounts, including in Creative Loafing, Culp railed against the understaffed police force and called for changes in department leadership.

Culp denies using the racial slur and maintains he was within his rights in his use of the handgun. He’s not alone.

“If they are judging a person for protecting his own self, then that is very poor for the police department,” says Lurlis Simmons, president of the Palmetto Park Neighborhood Association. Simmons also doesn’t believe Culp made the offending comment.

Every applicant to the Citizens Police Academy is required to undergo a criminal background check. According to Proffitt, a handful of applicants are denied each session based on their criminal records. Even applicants with simple misdemeanor charges are “generally” not allowed in the course, he says.

But a check of Pinellas County court records online shows at least three attendees in the last three years have entered the academy with criminal histories, mostly single misdemeanors involving theft, weapons violations or alcohol infractions. One participant was arrested for trafficking in hydrocodone, a felony charge, though the state attorney had dropped the case.

The Palmetto Park crime watch leader sees a double standard and suspects retaliation on the part of SPPD.

“Anybody who has been vocal about the inaction of the city has been marginalized. It’s not a matter of my background — they think I’m a threat. It shows they have vengeance toward me.

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