Police, residents see better Midtown 20 years after riots

The region underwent changes after the death of TyRonLewis in 1996.

Twenty years ago, St. Petersburg erupted in protests. Cars were set on fire. There was outrage on the streets, all part of the fallout from a traffic stop. 
 
On Oct. 24, 1996, 18-year-old TyRon Lewis and a friend sped past police.  He was driving without a license and had cocaine on him.  Two officers pulled him over.  Officer James Knight got in front of Lewis' car.  Lewis tried to run him over with his car.  Knight fired shots, killing Lewis. 
 
Within minutes, a crowd gathered and rocks and bottles were thrown.  This ultimately led to two nights of rioting.  Thirty buildings were set on fire, $1 million in damages.  A month later a grand jury cleared officer Knight.  That sparked two more days of riots.
 
The neighborhood where this happened used to be marked by high unemployment, crime and a high distrust of police.  But over time things changed.
 
When Wengay Newton looks around these streets in midtown St. Petersburg, he sees a much different neighborhood now than he did 20 years ago.  There's now a grocery store, bank and neighborhood school.
"Some of the basic amenities other communities take for granted so there's been a lot of growth in the area and a lot of improvements."
 
Newton was born and raised here and even served as a city councilman for this district. He says education and jobs are the keys to keeping crime down.  "Because that's what saved a little rat like me."
 
Everything started when an officer was bumped by the car he was trying to stop. That led to the first major policy change.
 
"There's a prohibition that we have with regard to standing in front of and reaching into vehicles,"  said Assistant Police Chief Luke Williams, who was a sergeant during riots. He says another thing that has changed is how they communicate with people, especially at crime scenes.  "There is a task we have to do, but we have to be efficient and respectful in the manner in which we do those tasks."
 
Williams says community policing is not new, but there's new focus, like the park, walk and talk program.  "Chief (Anthony) Holloway has basically said officers get out of your cars for an hour a week and you need to engage with somebody, not the people that you know from your calls, but someone you've never met."
 
And finally, police officers spend time mentoring school kids and earning their trust.  Williams says they are always working to be better, but he believes they are on the right track, since that tragic night 20 years ago.
 
Another major difference between now and 20 years ago, social media and cell phones.  All St. Pete officers are told to always assume they are being recorded and act appropriately.
 


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