ST. PETERSBURG — New Police Chief Anthony Holloway left his uniform at home in favor of a yellow dress shirt and slacks Saturday for a casual meet-and-greet at the St. Petersburg Museum of History.
To longtime city resident Maya Thomas, that was a hopeful sign the new chief will follow through on his philosophy of getting more officers out on foot in neighborhoods with histories of tension with law enforcement.
“I’m here and I’m feeling comfortable. He’s not in uniform. There’s a reason for that,” Thomas said.
That approachable quality is something she would like to see the chief encourage inside and outside the department. “With the uniform and without the uniform, I am the chief,” she said. “And if you break the law, the law is the law, but it’s a way of dealing with individuals in the community.”
Stories of how police have dealt with people in various parts of this community differ dramatically, often along racial lines.
Residents in northern St. Petersburg spoke of positive relationships with officers who come out to neighborhood meetings and warn troublesome teens against loitering in parks after dark to drink and smoke pot.
“They’re pretty good about coming in and talking to the kids, and it lasts about 24 hours and then it starts again,” said Tina Light of the Allendale Neighborhood Watch Association.
In southern St. Petersburg neighborhoods, relations have improved since the 1990s, when riots broke out following the shooting death of a black teen by police. But residents still worry about squad cars racing down quiet streets or officers who sweep in to make arrests but don’t meet the neighbors.
“The relationship with the front-line officers in the community has deteriorated immensely,” said Maria L. Scruggs, a longtime Midtown resident who works for the pretrial release unit at the Orange County jail in Orlando.
“All black people are not criminals; so you’ve got to be able to discern that. And the only way to be able to discern that is you get off your butt, get out of the cars, and you just walk and you get to know people.”
Those aren’t the words Holloway uses to describe the “Park, Walk and Talk” program he led during his tenure in Clearwater, but the same sentiment is there.
“Most of the time, when people see law enforcement come into their community, they’re coming in to arrest someone and then they’re leaving. I want them to see that we’re also coming in the community to help them,” said Holloway.
“I don’t want to see people run from the badge. I want to see people run to the badge.”
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Holloway has said he plans to meet with each of the department’s 545 sworn officers to hear any complaints about unfair promotions and discipline procedures.
He also wants to meet regularly with not only neighborhood leaders, but with regular residents “on the ground level.”
Mayor Rick Kriseman made a surprise choice in Holloway after passing over a group of four finalists for the job. He says feedback about the decision has been overwhelmingly positive.
“One of the other things I’ve heard is the atmosphere in the department has changed already, in a week,” Kriseman said.
Saturday’s informal meeting drew a steady stream of people from throughout St. Petersburg.
Although few knew a lot about the former Clearwater chief, many said their first impression was a positive one.
Scruggs, a former candidate for the Pinellas County Commission, called Holloway a shrewd choice by the mayor.
“He hasn’t reached this level of success by just being a police officer. For an African-American to have risen to the position of chief in now two jurisdictions, he obviously has something working for him,” she said.
Residents from all parts of the city hope to see more of their police force during his tenure.
“He said, ‘It’s our job not to just figure out who the bad guys are. It’s our job to get to know the good guys as well,’” said Joe Reed, a resident of the Old Northeast, after chatting with Holloway.
“We’ve met some of the cops and they’re great people, but we like that idea, to emphasize that a little bit more.”