East Tampa residents critical of police response to killings of two officers listen08/03/10 Kelly Benjamin
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After two Tampa Police officers were killed in East Tampa in June, police began a several-day manhunt for the alleged shooter, Dontae Morris. But weeks after Morris turned himself in, residents of the community are still concerned about how the police acted during the search. About two dozen gathered at the College Hill library to share their experiences.
The meeting was called by the Black People's Advancement and Defense Organization, a local group created earlier this year with the mission of protecting and defending black people in Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa. Life Turner is a local poet, activist, and founder of the organization:
"The Black People's Advancement and Defense Organization was put together in March of this year with the mission of organizing, educating, and mobilizing black people to defend black people in Hillsborough County from every aggression of the state by any means necessary."
The group is particularly critical of the way in which residents of the Johnson and Kenneth Court apartment complex were treated during the manhunt for accused police killer Dontae Morris. Community activist Connie Burton is a resident of Johnson and Kenneth Court and witnessed what she considers to be heavy-handed tactics on the part of the Tampa police department.
"Boom, boom, boom, running! get in the house! shut up! I mean, what's goin on? We are not all Dontae Morris!"
Since the manhunt, the apartment complex has changed owners, off duty police officers patrol the grounds, and new rules have gone into effect that have resulted in the several dozen eviction notices. Again Connie Burton:
"You know, since that occurred, we have been seeing them continue on this containment of the community by having uniformed police officers, people not being allowed to come out, gather, talk to their neighbors, all of this is being deemed a violation, loitering. You live in the community under the lease, you want to talk to your neighbors, they want to keep you in your apartment and the reason is they want to keep us under control as if we were all Dontae Morris."
Rona Charlton is another resident of Johnson and Kenneth Apartments. She was recently given an eviction notice by the new management after she claims she attempted to diffuse a neighbor’s argument. She says the entire community is being punished for the alleged crimes of Dontae Morris.
"Even for the residents, head of households, if we walk across the street, 'excuse me ma'am, what is your name? can I have your ID?' They run our name. You know? Even for our guests who come to the gate, we have to meet them at the gate, meet them at the cars, escort them to the cars when they leave, I don't feel that that is right either. I feel we might as well be in jail if that's the case along with Dontae. That's the way they treat us."
Dontae Morris has also been charged in the death of 18-year-old Derek Anderson, a young father from Johnson and Kenneth Court. Connie Burton would like to see an effort on the part of the police department to reach out to residents who have also been traumatized by a murder in their community.
"On top of this heavy military occupation on the property, not one person has stepped to the community to develop any type of community relation with us. Nobody. The police have not called the meetingThe only meeting we've had since then is where they told us that some of us would not survive with the new management team as they renovate these buildings."
However, Tampa Police spokesperson Laura McElroy says there have been attempts to reach out to the community in the wake of the Dontae Morris manhunt and they have found no validity to the complaints.
"No, we don't believe there is any validity to that. When we heard it initially we responded very aggressively. We met with East Tampa leaders, we met with the African-American newspaper and went on an African-American radio station with a prominent show with an open call-in so people could call in and talk to the Chief. She publicized the number. We aggressively went out into the African American community trying to find out specifics of anything that needed to be investigated but we have now determined that there appears that there wasn't any because noone has come forward. We set it up so that they could call in anonymously and still we haven't gotten a single call so I think that that speaks volumes that, yes it was a very traumatizing time for our entire city and certainly for residents of Johnson and Kenneth Court apartment complex, but there was no wrong doing on the behalf of Tampa Police officers. They were looking for a cold blooded killer and everything that was done was to keep our community safe."
Despite this, Dr. Carl Warren, who was a witness to police actions in Kenneth and Johnson Court says that police acted poorly towards the community during the manhunt and that people's rights were violated.
"I think their behavior was reprehensible. You can quote me on this, the way that the mayor and the Chief of Police handled the overall situation, if I had to give them a grade, I would give them a C-, if not a D. I think it was over-reactive. I think the police department violated the constitutional rights of black citizens. I think that the attitude was such that it was very seditional. Despite all of it, it does not justify the aggression and the hostility that the law enforcement officers were allowed to engage in and then defended and justified by the mayor and chief of police. It was wrong, it was wrong, and it was just absolutely wrong."
Life Turner of the Black People's Advancement and Defense Organization feels that the police department has failed the black community and would like to see the police take a radically different path.
"They just need to pull out of the black community. Pull out, discontinue the ongoing military occupation of black communities and give black people the space and economic resources to take care of our community."