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St. Pete leaders discuss tensions between police, black community

By Stephen Thompson
Published: May 28, 2013 Updated: May 28, 2013 at 07:16 PM
St. Petersburg police officers Jim Steward, in car, and Jim Olson consult after responding to a call Tuesday in South St. Petersburg.

Civic leaders emerged from a meeting with the mayor Tuesday convinced there’s a perception police are wrongly pursuing and shooting at black residents, even if police department data does not back that up.“The data says something that the public I’m hearing from doesn’t agree with,” said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP.Sykes called for the meeting with Mayor Bill Foster. Also in attendance were Police Chief Chuck Harmon, state Rep. Darryl Rouson, County Commission Chairman Ken Welch and representatives from the ACLU and the Pinellas Chapter of the Urban League.Among other things, at issue was the police department’s pursuit policy, which Foster loosened after he was elected, and recent shootings, including one in which three officers shot into a car with two teenagers inside.The parties involved agreed to meet every three months to stay abreast of efforts to address the black community’s concerns.Such meetings were routinely held in the wake of the city’s 1996 riots, sparked by a white police officer shooting a teenager in a car, but they have since gone by the wayside, Sykes said.City officials did not return calls to talk about Tuesday’s meeting. Rouson, though, said the mayor suggested people’s perceptions be lined up “with the truth” to see if there’s anything to them.“There’s a belief and a perception out there that these things are happening,” Rouson said. “The facts don’t belie the perception.”On one point perception and facts do line up: Police shootings are increasing. In all of last year, there were only three incidents in which the police intentionally shot at people. This year, there have been five, and the year isn’t halfway over yet.The most controversial of those shootings happened in April, when three officers fired on a stolen car with two teenagers inside, Sykes said.Even though that shooting remains under investigation, there’s a general impression in the black community that officers’ actions are routinely condoned, Sykes said. He would like that impression to change.