ST. PETERSBURG — By his own admission, Freddie Lee Crawford was a troublemaker when he worked as a black patrol officer for the St. Petersburg Police Department in the 1960s.
There was the time he took down the “Whites” signs above water fountains and outside rest rooms at the police station. When a captain queried him about it, he noted there were no code numbers or signatures on the signs, as required by municipal code, so they were therefore technically illegal.
Then there was the time he refused to abide by a long-standing practice that a black officer was required to radio a white officer when he pulled over a white motorist. Only a white officer could give a traffic ticket to a white driver.
When Crawford and his partner pulled over a white man who had run a stop sign at 11th Avenue South and 31st Street, Crawford decided to give the man the ticket himself. A white sergeant was called and eventually agreed Crawford was correct because Crawford and his partner would have to testify against the motorist in court.
Crawford, now 76, shared these memories Friday as he sat in the lobby of the police station where he and 11 other black officers are honored on a plaque for something they did that’s a little bit more significant than taking down a sign or flouting a racist policy.
In 1965, the officers, later called the “Courageous 12,” filed a discrimination lawsuit against the city in federal court. They won that case, putting an end to segregation policies in the police department.
Their victory meant not only that officers like Crawford could issue tickets to whites, it also meant they could be assigned to neighborhoods other than exclusively black ones.
Crawford was honored Friday night at a special banquet as part of this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. festivities.
He was bestowed the “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Legend and Life Time Achievement Award in Law Enforcement.” The banquet was hosted by a local Martin Luther King Jr. holiday association and the National Christian League of Councils.
“We just weren’t treated right,” Crawford said in an interview earlier, two grandsons in tow. “It was just not fair.”
Crawford, his 11 colleagues and three other black officers who opted not to join the lawsuit were restricted to Zone 13, a haphazardly stitched-together police district that covered the city’s three black neighborhoods, two on the south side and one just north of Central Avenue.
There were indignities both inside the police station — a separate locker area in addition to separate bathrooms and water fountains — and outside it.
“They would mark you by how many black people you could put in jail,” Crawford said. “That may be a little harsh but that’s how you felt.”
In the black neighborhoods, there was not much love for police officers, black or white, Crawford said.
“The community hadn’t necessarily caught up to it, to hiring black folk,” Crawford said. “There was some people where it was a mark of manhood — how many cops you could beat up.”
One reason black officers wanted to respond to calls in white neighborhoods was the neighborhoods were generally safer, Crawford said.
It did not go unnoticed among the black officers that they had to change shirts three of four times a shift, especially on weekends, because of the scuffles they got into with their black constituents. A white officer could make it through a whole shift in just one outfit, he said.
Crawford joined the department in 1960 and left in 1969, but his efforts to do away with segregation didn’t end.
He worked for the Community Relations Services division at the U.S. Department of Justice, whose mission is to resolve racial tensions in communities in a peaceful way.
The lawsuit in St. Petersburg, Crawford said, became a kind of blueprint for other segregated law enforcement agencies across the country.
Crawford also had some influence on a more personal level. The best friend of one of his sisters gave birth to a boy, who as a teenager sought Crawford’s counsel. That teenager was Goliath Davis III, who in 1997 would become St. Petersburg’s first black police chief.