A forum held on the USF St. Petersburg campus brought students, staff and local law enforcement together to discuss the at-times fragile relationship between police and minority communities. The group had an open conversation about their fears and what they needed to do to build greater trust.
The panel included the city of St. Petersburg Chief of Police Anthony Holloway, USF St. Petersburg campus Chief of Police David Hendry and Captain Paul Andrews, and students and staff from the St. Petersburg campus.
The forum was organized by the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) and spearheaded by Destiny Gomez, a USF student who is part of the Racial Justice Fellows Program, which puts college students in Pinellas County at the center of creating systemic racial change. The program is a joint initiative among USF St. Petersburg campus, Eckerd College, St. Petersburg College, Stetson University College of Law and the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg.
“I was super excited and passionate about this topic,” Gomez said. “Right now, there is a lot of mistrust on both sides. My goal was to start bridging the gap between students and university police, especially regarding students of color.”
Below are just some of the questions presented to, and answered by, police and students during the forum.
Why did you choose to become a police officer?
Chief Hendry, University Police Department (UPD) - It was something I was passionate about early on. It had a lot to do with wanting to be in a profession where you were challenged to help somebody that was in trouble or needed immediate assistance. I’ve been in law enforcement since I was 20-years-old, so policing has been a calling for me.
Captain Andrews, UPD - I got involved in the Police Explorers program when I was 14-years-old at the Treasure Island Police Department. You got to go in and volunteer your time and learn how police departments operate. That experience made me a better person. One of the biggest takeaways was seeing people from all different backgrounds.
Chief Holloway, St. Petersburg Police Department - In high school, I met our school resource officer, and he did a lot for other kids in school. He was the person who looked out for us, took care of us, and we had an officer who worked in the community who did the same thing. So, when you had a problem, you went to those officers. They weren’t there to arrest you; they were there to help you grow and mentor you.
As members of the minority community, what is your physical and emotional response when you see an officer?
Aaron Rose, racial justice student fellow - I tend to walk a certain way; I try to walk proper. I get a little nervous and anxious, feel my throat tighten up, and my palms get sweaty. Whenever I see officers, I tend to have that initial reaction of fear because I am always uncertain of how a situation can go and how I can be perceived.
DeWayne Anderson, assistant director, OMA - I think about my experiences growing up in the inner city in a predominately black neighborhood. When we saw the police, we were scared in a sense, so we would run. That was our response.
Kaison Watson, admissions recruiter advisor - My mom always told me that you don’t have anything to worry about if you don’t do anything wrong. I spent most of my life with that same belief system. But then, I had a couple of interactions as a young adult. Those experiences with police officers where I had no idea where their aggression was coming from in a situation where I was being respectful said in my mind that it didn’t matter how I carried myself. It had everything to do with how I looked.
What are you doing to create trust on campus and in the community?
Chief Hendry - We see our students by making the rounds through residence halls at all hours to say hi and ask them if they need any assistance. We do escorts from the library late at night if someone feels uncomfortable. Students have felt comfortable calling us on all kinds of crazy things that happen because no one else is here to call, and that’s the platform we want to set up.
Captain Andrews - If we get to know each other, we can demystify, hey, what’s that cop doing there, or what’s that student doing there. Our officers are very good at that. The new ones that are coming on; we’re training them to do the same thing.
Chief Holloway - We are getting out in the community and getting to know people. Instead of seeing the negative part, let’s get to know each other. So, that’s what we have to do, continue to build bridges. I commend this group because people don’t want to have this conversation. It’s a tough conversation, but when you leave here today, you’ll know a little bit about me, and I’ll know a little bit about you.