Police brutality and car chases in black neighborhoods bemoaned by NAACP

06/19/13 Janelle Irwin
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The NAACP is crying foul over the St. Petersburg Police Department’s use force and frequent car chases in predominantly black neighborhoods. Tuesday night during a town hall meeting at their midtown office, more than 40 people weighed in on the problem. Angela Owens is an attorney working with the group.

“The value of apprehending a suspect verses the possible danger to innocent people, that’s what they’re supposed to be weighing. But, the real irony of it is that, if they’re weighing it against the potential danger to the public and innocent citizens who have nothing to do with the problem, but yet they’re endangering them by continuing the pursuits – either way we end up with lost lives, either way we end up with innocent bystanders who are getting hurt.”

The civil rights group's stance was sparked, in part by the April shooting of two black teens driving a stolen car. The 15 and 19-year-olds were both female. The department claims the vehicle was fired on after the driver accelerated toward officers, striking one. The incident is still under investigation by the department because it's policy not to discharge a weapon at a vehicle.

“What constitutes righteous shoots? And the same line that continues to be heard – I was in fear of my life and I fired my weapon – kind of gets old.”

That’s NAACP St. Pete chapter president Manuel Sykes. That argument has been heard for years among supporters of the Uhuru movement, but the NAACP has typically taken a more moderate stance on issues surrounding police involvement in African-American communities. Sykes called on residents in those areas to raise their voices to people in power to affect both change in the police department and at the state level by asking for programs to help curb crime in poor neighborhoods.

“Community Block Development grant money is based on the statistics in the worst areas, but the money don’t come to the worst areas by and large.”

The meeting was attended by two St. Pete City Council members, including Wengay Newton who represents many of the neighborhoods at issue. He applauded the turnout, but lamented that it’s not community gatherings that foster change – it’s the board room where he sits the first and third Thursday of every month.

“And it’s rare that you see this many people that look like me ever in that room. Ever.”

There was at least one woman in the crowd who does show up to city council meetings religiously. Mama T. Lassiter, as she’s well known to the community and to council, lashed out at members of the community who complain, but don’t take action.

“We as a people – everybody work, everybody has different things – make a sacrifice and just like we’re here tonight to listen, fill that room up at open forum. Let them hit the gavel and tell you when you go over 3 minutes, but you got to say something. We’ve got to take this thing to the streets.”

Another community activist, Ayele Hunt, responded to calls from the NAACP to ask state lawmakers to fund programs to help young people in the African-American community by providing mentoring programs.

“On the community level it’s on par with – yes, we need to show up for policy meetings and we need to express ourselves. But a lot of people also want to see action. So, we can piece the two together … what can we do as people in the room, given our resources, given our time availability and start mopving forward? If we need to hire someone to get started, I’m saying right now, I will commit to helping out with that effort and finding that person because these grassroots ways of organizing are key in this entire situation you’re talking about and I don’t want to have to wait on Tallahassee before we get grassroot organizers.”

Locally, St. Pete City Council member Newton has had some success in his undying efforts to implement more youth programs to keep kids off the streets and out of jails. This month, city council approved a $100,000 expenditure on an after school job program.

“So, $100,000 is – that’s the amount it costs to put one police officer on the street fully equipped. Kevlar, taser, Glock, pension plan, salary, car - $100,000 per. That dollar amount is going to represent 40 kids the opportunity – not the guarantee, but the opportunity to go to school to work three hours after school because that’s what saved me. Statistics have shown, not Newton numbers, but statistics – juveniles either something happens to them or they get into something between the hours of three and six.”

Also present at the meeting were leaders of local neighborhood associations and a representative from Congress member Kathy Castor's office. A retiring St. Pete Police officer also spoke about the need for some cultural understanding within the department including training and more diverse hiring policies. Some speakers also suggested reducing or changing the city’s policy on putting police in schools – claiming that children are being arrested unnecessarily and taught to fear police rather than respect them.

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