The smiles, applause and at least one hug belied the grim impetus for a gathering last week at a neighborhood center in Tampa — the Seminole Heights killings.
The Tampa Police Department held a ceremony to thank those who helped in the investigation that led to an arrest Nov. 28. The four seemingly random killings within a one-square mile area terrorized the neighborhood for 51 long days last fall.
In circling back this way, police Chief Brian Dugan recognized an extraordinary response to an extraordinary time for the city — and took a step toward strengthening the community relations that can help police tackle a rising number of Tampa murders.
Thirty-nine people were slain in the city during 2017, the most in nearly 15 years, and 27 of them were African-Americans — including three of the Seminole Heights victims.
Dugan and Mayor Bob Buckhorn noted correctly that the whole city pulled together to help solve these serial murders.
"We showed the world what a community looks like," Buckhorn said. "We are a better place because we stood together."
They issued broad thanks to the citizens of Tampa and presented certificates in person to a number of individuals and institutions — those who contributed to the reward money, fed the round-the-clock law enforcement effort, and turned over home video.
They saved the most emotional presentation for the last recipient, Delanda Walker, the McDonald’s manager who turned over a handgun in a McDonald’s sack that a co-worker inexplicably entrusted her. The co-worker, Howell Donaldson III, awaits trial on four charges of first-degree murder in the case.
Walker got a hug from the mayor and a standing ovation, and told reporters later that the aftermath of her simple act — the promise of a six-figure reward notwithstanding — has been tough on her.
Persuading people to approach them with information is a major challenge for police, especially in a case that draws the international attention this one did. It takes a strong sense of civic duty to face the prospect of sworn statements, court appearances, media attention and community reaction that can follow.
Police help their own cause and build a better community when they foster the trust that makes people comfortable coming forward. Tampa police placed relations at risk in years past by pulling over people in African-American neighborhoods simply for riding bicycles — a "stop-and-frisk" style approach that positioned officers as people who harass without reason rather than as trusted partners in fighting crime.
That image, by all accounts, seems to be changing, helped by new bonds forged during the investigation.
As the investigation dragged on and the death toll mounted, Dugan took to the podium again and again to repeat two points — someone knows something they’re not saying and the killer will be the agent of his own downfall.
Why Donaldson turned over what authorities say is the murder weapon remains a mystery — there were indications he was planning to leave town — but Dugan was proved right. This handoff led directly to the arrest.
Whether anyone came forward with information about Donaldson’s actions before his arrest may become clear as the state builds its case against him. His parents face possible jail time for contempt now because they refuse to say what they might know.
But the community-wide focus on these serial killings points up the need for others to come forward so law enforcement may bring to justice the killers in the 17 homicides from 2017 that have not yet resulted in an arrest.
With so many people of color among those statistics, a number of investigations focus on the African-American community. People need to step up, as local NAACP president Yvette Lewis told staff writer Tony Marrero of the Tampa Bay Times.
Still, it’s a responsibility shared by all who have a stake in keeping the city safe.
Finding ways to say thank you when people do is a commendable way for police to keep them coming forward.