What's Changed?

Why is the reaction to the latest law-enforcement killing of an unarmed man so different than it was in 1996?

If you didn't live in Tampa Bay almost a decade ago, it is probably hard to imagine the intensity of the riot that broke out immediately after a white police officer shot and killed a black 18-year-old, TyRon Lewis, in St. Petersburg in October 1996.

It seems a lifetime since the streets of south St. Petersburg, now called "Midtown," erupted in rock and bottle throwing, car fires and beatings. Cops were hit with flying debris. Reporters were beaten and two television station trucks were torched. Four businesses likewise were set ablaze.

Since that night, St. Petersburg has seen three different police chiefs. Two of the three newspaper reporters who wrote the first story have moved on, to Time magazine and the New York Times. Residents have seen an expansive effort at improving life in Midtown, including an economic development plan adopted by city leaders in 2002.

Times have changed.

If you live outside of St. Petersburg, you may have missed the fact that in the past 11 months two unarmed black men in St. Petersburg were killed in confrontations with white Pinellas County Sheriff's deputies. Far fewer stories have been written about these incidents, and in Tampa editions, the accounts are buried in the metro section, where they are easily overlooked.

In May 2004, 17-year-old Marquell McCullough was killed after the pickup truck he was driving struck two sheriff's patrol cars and a deputy after they had cornered him in a chase. Deputies fired 17 shots at the pickup truck. McCullough, who had no firearms in the car but did have cocaine, was pronounced dead at the scene. The deputies were cleared of any wrongdoing in the shooting.

On April 13, 19-year-old Jarrell Walker died after being shot twice by a sheriff's deputy during a drug raid. Deputies said Walker refused to show his hands and appeared to be reaching into a couch when he was fired upon. The shooting is still under investigation by the State Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Office.

Even though Sheriff Jim Coats' deputies wielded the weapons, a group of protesters blamed St. Petersburg Chief Chuck Harmon.

"We are holding the St. Petersburg Police department and specifically Police Chief Charles Harmon responsible for this second cold-blooded murder of an African in this city by the sheriffs this year because he was the one that called for the sheriffs to come into the city," the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement said in an e-mail announcing an April 20 protest. "Stop the war on the African community! Reparations must be paid to these families and the killer sheriffs must immediately withdraw from St. Petersburg and specifically from the black community!"

For his part, Harmon (not exactly a firebrand of a chief anyway) laid low while his spokesman threw up his hands and pointed out that the city police department has no way to "stop" the Sheriff's Office from fighting crime anywhere in the county.

The language of the Uhurus' complaint may be vitriolic, but the viewpoint is shared by observers outside their membership. The theory is this: During his tenure as police chief, Goliath Davis did not allow the Sheriff's Office to conduct such street-level drug arrests in St. Petersburg and, in fact, drew back his own troops to avoid such risky encounters. Harmon (the supposition goes) changed that policy and invited the Sheriff back in.

There is mixed evidence for this scenario.

During both Davis' and Harmon's tenures, St. Petersburg narcotics officers worked closely with sheriff's narcotics investigators, at times serving in each other's bureaus or task forces depending on the specific crime they were investigating. A spokeswoman for Sheriff Jim Coats said no one in her office remembers ever getting a request from then-Chief Davis to "get out of St. Petersburg" or an alternative request from Chief Harmon to step up the sheriff's drug-fighting efforts.

"They don't remember that conversation taking place or that feeling between the two agencies," Marianne Pasha said. She instead pointed to lots of cooperative efforts between the two agencies in trying to fight illegal drug sales.

But there was one well-known flap during Davis' tenure between himself and then-Sheriff Everett Rice. The two disagreed over the "Weed and Seed" program, a federally funded plan that saw increased police efforts to crack down on drugs (the "weed" portion), followed by increased investment in a neighborhood's economy to create a stronger social structure (the "seed"). Davis and former Mayor David Fischer refused to accept a $100,000 grant for Weed and Seed, a program some view as racist by its very nature. Rice, however, stepped in and said his office would use the federal money to make drug arrests in St. Petersburg.

At the time, Davis said no one invited Rice into St. Petersburg. The Times reported activist Ron Lowe as saying, "I deeply resent Sheriff Rice's uninvited participation." Some of that same sentiment remains in Midtown today.

For his part, Davis - now a deputy mayor in charge of Midtown's redevelopment - is not talking about whether he had an understanding that led the Sheriff's Office to back off of Midtown investigations beyond the scope of the Weed and Seed argument. He did not return a call for comment from the Planet for this story.

The fact does remain that during Davis' tenure, not one unarmed black man was killed by police or deputies.

The fact also remains that while crime citywide is down in the first two months of 2005, in Midtown it is up 2.2 percent, and in hard-hit-by-drugs Childs Park, it's up 3.6 percent. Drug arrests in the city are also increasing, up 10 percent during that same time.

Such statistics are related to what some black leaders view as the most pressing concern in their communities: the number of black men killed by other black men in drug-related cases.

"The real tragedy is that our young brothers think that you can sell drugs without any consequences," said County Commissioner Ken Welch, who is black and whose district includes Midtown. "You can't buy into this thug mentality. A lot of what they see on TV is fantasy. You're not going to outrun or outdraw the police. You end up dead or end up in jail."

Welch concluded: "We need to teach our young men not to put themselves into these situations."

MEDIA WATCH: As I think back on my 17 years in Tampa Bay media and politics, I recall two major losses in the reportorial ranks at the St. Petersburg Times. The first was Rick Bragg, who went off to the New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize and a resignation in disgrace after accusations of improprieties in his storytelling.

The second, and bigger, loss was Anne Hull, whose features three times were finalists for a Pulitzer, including in 1995 for her series "A Secret Life" about Kendrick Hardcastle III, a well-known Tampa businessman who struggled with drug and sex problems, and in 2000 for her series, "Una Vida Mejor," about a group of Mexican women laboring in North Carolina.

She left five years ago to join the Washington Post's national reporting staff, where she has been a finalist for another three Pulitzers. That makes a total of six times as a finalist.

But always a bridesmaid and never a bride, Hull has never won journalism's most coveted prize. The Washington City Paper's media column now reveals that Pulitzer officials believe Hull's six finalist finishes without a win is the most since the prize committee began releasing the names of finalists in 1980. The alternative weekly's "Dept. of Media" column wrote that "it's tempting to call Hull the Susan Lucci of journalism," but even Lucci eventually won an Emmy for her work on daytime soaps.

At the Post, Hull has been a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2003, 2004 and 2005, the most recent coming for her series on being young and gay in America.

The City Paper suggested that Hull be honored with a rare "Special Award" from the Pulitzers for her lifetime achievement. Not a bad idea.

Political Whore was a consultant to Sheriff Coats and Commissioner Welch during his years in politics. You can reach the Po-Ho by e-mail at [email protected].

The fact does remain that during Davis' tenure, not one unarmed black man was killed by police or deputies.


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