Editor’s Note: Kenny Irby joined the St. Petersburg Police Department as its community intervention director. He is a former photojournalist, picture editor and educator. He founded Poynter’s internationally accredited photojournalism program and was a 20-year senior faculty member until October 2015. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
For the last two weeks, the language of the unheard – the product of normalized rage – has roared, in response to the killing of George Floyd, like a social-cultural pandemic across America. As peaceful civil disobedience has morphed into violent confrontations and opportunistic looting in some areas earlier on during the protests, countless family members, friends and colleagues have asked, “What made St. Petersburg so different?”
It’s a fair question when you see that St. Petersburg, Florida has, unlike neighboring Tampa, not experienced protests taken over by a mob mentality – with burning of local businesses and physical injuries in the first days of the protests. There has been minimal use of smoke and flash bangs, some arrest for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and tense confrontations between protest and police.
The answer to what makes St. Petersburg so different lies in the connection between the police department and the community it serves. Meaningful police reform must include building bridges of trust, communication and accountability between law enforcement and the neighborhoods they have sworn to serve and protect.
Working with the St. Petersburg Police Department as the civilian director of community intention and juvenile outreach and in other capacities, I’ve seen firsthand the difference this can make.
In 2011, with SPPD and The Poynter Institute (where I worked from 1995 to 2015), I was charged with the creation of The Write Field, a literacy and youth leadership program for young men, in the aftermath of Officer Dave Crawford’s murder by a 16-year-old African American.
One component of the program was to create a safe place where black and brown youth could interact with law enforcement officers and other positive role models.
In 2015, with the support of the SPPD and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, we launched “Men In the Making,” a life skill project. We focused on maintaining fidelity, innovation and integrity in the programs and built on the lessons learned from.
Then in 2016, after almost five years of coordinating with The Write Field, I was hired by the SPPD to oversee a series of local programs for high need youth (ages 12 to 24) in our city in conjunction with former President Barack Obama’s: My Brother’s Keeper Initiative.
The principal goal of my role was to improve the relationships between the community and the police department through engagement, opportunities and awareness. The mayor committed $1 million to the development of new programming to that focused on educational, entrepreneurial, and enrichment opportunities for minority male youth.
Within the SPPD, the programs were an addition to Chief Anthony Holloway’s Park, Walk & Talk philosophy that focused on relational policing.
I was eager to accept that challenge because I had a positive history working with law enforcement officers as a photojournalist, as an educator and as a faith leader.
And in my own youth, from the ages 12 to 16, I was shaped and nurtured by the Police Athletic League at #9 Boys Club in Stuart Jr. High School in North East Washington, DC. They were my role models, coaches, teachers and fathers.
This is not to say that I don’t understand why many in the black community don’t trust the police, because I do.
Afterall, I self-identify first and foremost as a black man in America. In 1968, when I was six years old, a police shooting, in which a loved one, Officer Willie C. Ivery, Jr. (AKA Bunky), was killed, shaped my world view for the rest of my life. Officer Ivery was working undercover and two uniformed officers mistook him for a suspect.
The knee on the neck of African American men in America is not new.
I bear a debt of gratitude and deep appreciation to Chief Holloway and Mayor Rick Kriseman for their visionary leadership, and for extending me the opportunity of lifetime to contribute to the transformation of a police department, so that it can do its part in making a change.
We have benefited by intentionally, “leaning forward” as Chief Holloway consistently reminds the leaders and rank and file of the agency. He has been emphatic about creating a culture whereby promotion is governed by the number of people that you help, not the number of people that you arrest.
Our efforts and menu of programs actively places members of our department in partnership with the faith community, the school system, local entrepreneurs, universities, medical industry, social service agencies and many more. We steadfastly build relationships during times of calm that have reaped tremendous goodwill during this time of crisis. Many of the social-economic concerns in our community were not created by police departments, yet whenever there is trouble, we get the calls.
One of our training goals is to reform and train officers for the evolving landscape of our city. In the Foundational Cultural Competency program, we teach and discuss how officers should police diverse communities, and we mandate that all officers be willing to change.
As Philosopher Eric Hoffer is widely quoted, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth,” and we are preparing for the new world. All officers are trained to practice the skill of genuinely considering other ways of seeing and doing things and to be open to resolving conflicts and improving outcomes.
When I joined the department in 2016, it was after the killing of seven young men in our city, and we acknowledged, as the handout that we give to all new cadets states, “Tension between culturally diverse communities and law enforcement professionals often lead to feelings of distrust, anger and fear. Today it’s not uncommon for citizens to believe that law enforcement agencies have unfair policies and are out to get them!” In turn, officers of the peace feel unjustly blamed for social problems across the board and underappreciated for the work they achieve for the greater good of the community.
As a vital step of reform, the St. Petersburg Police Department initiated a new level of accountability and cultural competency training that is taught to all new cadets within a two-year window. Moreover, all sworn and civilian staff have experienced this type of training and exposure. Our goal was to better prepare our personnel in three particular areas:
- Building Positive Relationships
- Talking Across Difference
- Appreciating Diversity as an Asset
This type of reform has proved invaluable along with our thorough review of use of force cases, traffic stop accountability, general order integrity and constant, clear dialogue.
As for me, I have never been more fulfilled in my service.