A panel of African American pioneers discussed the past and present state of equitable policing in St. Petersburg Thursday night – and what it will take to build on hard-earned progress.
The spotlight shined brightest on Leon Jackson, the sole surviving member of the Courageous 12. The group of Black St. Petersburg Police officers made national history in 1965 when they sued to receive the same duties – and respect – as their Caucasian counterparts.
While judges initially ruled against the litigation, filed by prominent African American attorney James Sanderlin, the U.S. Court of Appeals concluded: “Nothing we say is intended to suggest that the negro officers on the police force of St. Petersburg should be given preferential treatment. They deserve only what they seek – equality.”
Jackson, 82, and his courageous cohort blazed a trail for the two men who joined him onstage Thursday night. Dr. Goliath Davis III began his career with the SPPD in 1973, and became the city’s first African American police chief in 1997.
Anthony Holloway, the department’s second Black police chief and current leader, sat to their right. Before the event’s conclusion, St. Petersburg’s first African American mayor addressed attendees and read a proclamation designating April 27, 2023, as Courageous 12 Day.
“It was the Courageous 12 that broke the barriers and laid the foundation to help open the doors of opportunity for my generation and generations to come,” said Mayor Ken Welch. “We are all of you today, and thank you for your sacrifice and service. We are standing on your shoulders.”
Jackson became the first Black officer to patrol a predominantly white neighborhood – Snell Isle and Shore Acres. Rev. Kenneth Irby moderated the discussion and asked how the Courageous 12 helped advance community policing.
Davis relayed that he adopted an “if you lie, you fly” policy and stressed the importance of officers showing respect to people they encounter. Holloway said Jackson and his fellow pioneers provided a roadmap followed today, and every new officer can talk with him.
Holloway also requires new hires and officers taking the sergeant’s exam to read a book chronicling the Courageous 12’s journey. Jackson authored Urban Buffalo Soldiers: The Story of St. Petersburg’s Courageous Twelve in 2020.
“When I was a police officer, I treated people how I would like a police officer to treat me,” Jackson said. “And if you did that, you would have a lot less trouble.
“Sometimes on 22nd (Street South) now, you couldn’t do that. You had to go get it.”
Regardless of any training or permits, new legislation will allow most Floridians to carry concealed firearms starting July 1. When asked for his thoughts, Holloway, not known for delving into political issues, obliged.
He said law enforcement leaders know what will happen – more people will carry guns without training, and “the wrong person is going to get hurt.”
Davis advocated for “common sense solutions” to keep guns out of the wrong hands. He pleaded with attendees to become more civically involved.
“Be courageous, and vote more than every four years,” he added.
Jackson expressed his disbelief over police shooting people attempting to flee. He noted that officers likely have enough information to let the suspect go and arrest them another day.
Davis said he instructed his officers to never stand in front, behind or reach into a vehicle. He explained that law enforcers should never willfully endanger themselves, which gives them “cause” to shoot a suspect.
Holloway noted his officers must write an official report any time they use force, including just throwing a suspect to the ground. He said the chain of command then reviews the information to determine justification.
“So, they know there is a check and balance there,” Holloway said. “We have the most strict policy on that.”
Davis told attendees that they should uplift the community in ways that would make the 12 proud. He and Holloway both believe an integral aspect of carrying on that legacy is through the city’s youth.
Davis said parents should take a more active role in their children’s education, and he believes school officials allow students to graduate without properly meeting proficiency requirements. He relayed that during his time as police chief, he often told the district superintendent, “Every time you fail a kid, I win.”
“Because we’re going to put them somewhere in this criminal justice system,” Davis added. “I don’t want to win. I want to be the failure – and you to be the success.
Holloway expressed his weariness with arresting local youth. He prefers to see them become government and corporate leaders, and sit on the Center for Health Equity’s stage one day.
He said the only way to accomplish that goal is by working together to support neighborhood programs and increasing positive police encounters.
“I always tell officers, ‘I don’t care how many arrests you made,’” Holloway said. “Tell me how many people you know in the communities. Tell me how many children will grow up in the community. Tell me how many programs we have in the community.”