Tampa, `sitting on a keg of dynamite,' tries to end violence

As incidents mount where Tampa police are accused of unnecessary violence against blacks, so does the anger and frustration widespread in black Tampa neighborhoods. Both black and white civic leaders here are working hard to keep youth from further violence and looting.

``Tampa is sitting on a keg of dynamite,'' says Robert Scott, chairman of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's advisory committee on the black community. ``Black people are angry. They are angry at the killing of their children. It must be stopped.''

In four incidents since last November, black men have died while being subdued or pursued by Tampa police. In the latest, two weeks ago, a black man described as a vagrant died as police wrestled him down during an arrest. Medical reports cite a heart attack.

State attorney Bill James has found two of the earlier incidents ``excusable homicide'' under state law. The latest two are still under investigation.

In black neighborhoods here, however, many - and possibly most - residents are convinced that Tampa police officers are venting their frustration against black crime with rough treatment of blacks in general.

Behind the anger is a deeper frustration with a city that has seen a tremendous growth and prosperity in the past 10 to 15 years - a prosperity that has spilled over only slightly into black Tampa.

``It reminds me more and more of Mexico,'' where the very rich and very poor grow farther apart, says Bob Gilder, past president of Tampa's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter and a radio talk show host. ``Until there's rock throwing, the vast majority of the affluent, black and white, act like they don't [care].''

Mayor Sandy Freedman says: ``I think the community, going back many years, got somewhat complacent about community relations.'' At civic functions attended by perhaps a thousand leading residents, she notes, she will commonly see only a handful of blacks, although the city is nearly 25 percent black.

The frustration has been seething in black neighborhoods for years, says Mayor Freedman. Even before the current police controversies, looting and brick-throwing occasionally broke out among mostly teen-age blacks in poor neighborhoods. Except for riots in 1967 and 1980, the outbreaks seldom attracted much attention.

The black business community has not rebuilt itself from the damage of the 1967 riot. For all the social and educational programs designed to help black youth, notes Bob Morrison, a black attorney and the mayor's executive assistant, black businesses were on their own in a part of town that insurance companies would not insure.

While Tampa's prosperity has been easily visible, few black success stories are visible from the public housing projects or the neighborhoods around them. Here, many black residents note, the drug dealers are the only ones driving Mercedes Benzes and BMWs.

Some see in all this the vestiges of a Southern town still catching up in some ways to its new status as a Sunbelt city. ``The growth has come in such a short period of time,'' says Freedman. ``We haven't kept pace in all kinds of ways.''

In this atmosphere, the Tampa police have been a flashpoint, even while community relations with the Hillsborough County Sheriff Department have remained good. The specific charge leveled at the Tampa department is that it doesn't strictly enforce its policy restricting the use of deadly force. The broader charge is that Tampa police have a bad attitude and are too aggressive toward blacks.

This may be true of some officers, says Freedman, but it is not true of most of them, and certainly not of the chief or his top officers. Although Police Chief Don Newberger is generally considered sympathetic by black leaders, many do not believe he is taking a strong disciplinary stand with his officers.

Much of the problem is communication, says Mr. Morrison. He notes that few people know a police officer was fired last fall for using a racial epithet - and was reinstated only by order of the local civil service board.

Change is already underway on several fronts. Freedman is looking for ways of tightening discipline and firing officers with racist attitudes. The choke hold, which killed one black suspect in February, has been banned. Eight black officers were sworn in two weeks ago to bring to 66 the number of blacks among a total 730 officers. Eight more are entering the police academy next month. Three weeks ago, Curtis Lane was promoted to become the first black colonel in the department. The department is encouraging more contact between officers and people on their beats, both on the job and off.

The Chamber of Commerce has recently formed a biracial commission of leading citizens to work on black-white relations problems. The city has pulled heavy support from private industry for ambitious jobs programs (black unemployment is 30 to 40 percent), a loan program for home improvement (20 to 30 percent of Tampa housing is substandard), and a venture capital program for black entrepreneurs.

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