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Pinellas leaders agree to address use of force policies

Margie Manning



Pinellas County Commissioners Janet Long and Ken Welch

UPDATE: The Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners wants a review of use of force policies by the county sheriff’s office and municipal police departments.

The full board  issued the request in a June 4 letter, one day after two Pinellas County Commissioners, Janet Long and Ken Welch, called for the full Board of County Commissioners to speak out on racial injustice.

Long and Welch urged other commissioners to make an official statement as a board on the equity issues that have taken center stage following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, who died after a police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes. In the wake of Floyd’s death, there have been several days of protests locally and nationally focused on systemic racism and police tactics.

“Considering the state of our county, our cities and what’s going on across the country and the world, I thought it was an opportunity for us to do or say something, because we have not taken a real stand or made a comment on these issues, and I think that’s a big mistake,” Long said June 3, at the end of a four-hour budget meeting. “I bring it up to hear your thoughts. It’s kept me up for several nights and I didn’t want to be awake alone.”

In a memo to other commissioners and local leaders, Long said “As leaders in this community, we cannot remain silent any longer,” and she called for a public community meeting to have a conversation about changing the dynamics around race. She also said the board should revisit an earlier report on poverty in Pinellas County and look at elements of the criminal justice system. Read her full memo here.

Welch said he agreed with Long’s ideas but he also said the county should not act alone. Welch said the county should collaborate with St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman and other county mayors to create a structured and strategic path towards a community dialogue.

Related: City leaders work to change conversation

Commissioners Charlie Justice and Karen Seel spoke in favor of the requests for action by the Pinellas board. Commission Chair Pat Gerard said she would reach out to Kriseman and also draft a statement on behalf of the full board.

The June 4 letter from the Board of County Commissioners called on local law enforcement departments to take part in future collaboration on the implementation of improvements and confirmation of best practices in use of force policies. “Even though Sheriff Gualtieri, Mayor Kriseman and Mayor Hibbard, and their respective agencies already prohibit the conduct which resulted in Mr. Floyd’s death, they still support our request for a policy review,” the letter said.

The Pinellas commissioners’ letter also said the board was committed to changing the culture that led to the death of George Floyd. “While we work to improve housing and job opportunities, transportation alternatives and blighted neighborhoods, it is imperative we do so with a focus on justice,” the letter said.

Read the full letter here.

Welch, who is the only black member of the commission, earlier joined other black elected officials in a letter expressing outrage at Floyd’s murder and joining the call for justice. Progress has been made in local law enforcement standards, the letter said, adding “We will continue to demand community-focused policing and high standards of professionalism from our law enforcement agencies.”

In addition to Welch, the letter was signed by Sen. Darryl Rouson, State Rep. Wengay “Newt” Newton, Pinellas County School Board Member Rene Flowers, and St. Petersburg City Council Members Lisa Wheeler Bowman and Deborah Figgs-Sanders. Read their letter here.

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