Pinellas County’s leaders take a stand in George Floyd’s death

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, one of the county’s black elected officials, supports opening a dialogue to get to policy changes “so everybody feels safe” as protests continue after the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners issued a public statement June 4 expressing their shock and distress over the death of George Floyd and “other systemic acts of violence against persons because of their race.”

“The death of George Floyd points to the stereotypical racism and hatred that continues to be prevalent in America today,” Commission Chair Pat Gerard wrote in the letter on behalf of the commission.

Floyd, 46, died May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Video shows a police officer kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes as Floyd was held face down.

Floyd was accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a nearby market.

Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, was fired the next day. He was later arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree murder. Prosecutors also charged him with second-degree murder on June 3.

Three other police officers, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, also were fired and later arrested and charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter. All three were at the scene and did nothing to intervene.

The commission discussed Floyd’s death during a June 3 budget information session, and agreed to send out the statement. Commissioner Janet Long initiated the conversation after sending out a memo the night before.

She said the commission had an “opportunity to do or say something.”

“We have not taken a real stand or made a real commitment on these issues and I think that’s a big mistake,” she said.

She wanted to hear what others thought.

“I know it’s certainly kept me up and has for several nights,” she said.

Commissioner Ken Welch agreed with Long that some kind of official statement from the commission would be appropriate. He sent out a statement June 2 with other black elected officials, including state Sen. Darryl Rouson, state Rep. Wengay “Newt” Newton, School Board member Rene Flowers, and St. Petersburg Councilmembers Lisa Wheeler Bowman and Deborah Figgs-Sanders.

“As black elected officials representing the citizens of Pinellas County, we express our collective outrage at the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and join the call for justice for Mr. Floyd, and accountability for all officers involved in this heinous act,” the statement said.

Welch told fellow commissioners that he wanted to make that statement “primarily because of the way this issue started with George Floyd’s murder.”

“But as we all know, this is not a black issue,” he said. “This is a community issue. We can see it needs a broader conversation. The issue of police misconduct though has had a disproportionate effect on the black community.”

Welch has reached out to other officials, law enforcement and the public.

“There are a lot of good thoughts and ideas about how we move forward,” he said.

He supports opening a dialogue that happens in a collaborative way with city mayors and others. He said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri had mentioned he would be open to that and “he knows there needs to be some rebuilding of community trust with law enforcement.”

Gualtieri released a statement on Facebook on May 29, “The Minneapolis police officers’ actions in the killing of George Floyd are WRONG and there must be accountability. The officer used deadly force in a situation where there was no justification based on the video we have all seen. The other officers present should have acted and intervened to stop the officer who had his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck,” Gualtieri wrote. “Please know these actions are not representative of the majority of law enforcement officers in this country or here in Pinellas County. Let the system work and justice will be served.”

Welch said the commission needed to let the public know that “we are listening, but they have to be peaceful protests.”

He said more than 20 people had been arrested Wednesday night after shutting down U.S. 19 in north St. Petersburg and attempting to shut down the interstate.

“That is not helpful. We get to dialogue quicker when folks have peaceful protests,” he said. “Know we are listening. Everyone I think is on the same page that we need more dialogue and talks about what additional policy changes need to happen so everybody feels safe.”

In the commission’s letter, Gerard noted that the right to peaceful protest is a “fundamental principle of a free nation and should compel a call to action.”

“We have seen our country change for the better when people’s voices are heard, and meaningful actions are taken,” she wrote. “Although uncomfortable, difficult realities and meaningful progress sometimes is only achieved through this call to action.

“However, when a small group in a movement resorts to looting, destruction and violence as a means of capturing media attention, once again, this diverts our attention for the issues we have avoided too long. Those that choose to ransack a local business and commit violence against innocent parties must be stopped.”

The commission requested that the sheriff and local police departments review their use of force policies and collaborate to implement improvements and confirmation of best practices.

“Even though Sheriff Gualtieri, Mayor Kriseman (St. Petersburg), Mayor Hibbard (Clearwater) 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 commission invited the public to “work with us towards a better Pinellas County for everyone who lives here.”

“It is time for action. We are committed to changing the culture that led to the death of George Floyd,” Gerard wrote. “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.”

Suzette Porter is TBN's Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.