Plant City Police Department is taking a moment to reflect on the pioneers that bravely took the first steps to become the first African-American officers within the department.
A section of the lobby has been transformed into a historical display filled with photos, memorabilia and information of the first black officers to don the PCPD badge. The display will be up for several weeks and PCPD is inviting the public to take a moment and swing by to check out the history compiled. The public is invited out to the department, 1 Police Center Drive, between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“The legacy these officers left behind for this agency is huge,” Plant City Police Chief Jim Bradford said.
When Bradford stepped into the role as Chief of Police three months ago, he immediately dove into the history of the department. He wanted to create something to honor the first African-Americans to join PCPD and asked a team of his staff to conduct research to create a unique display. Their findings are called Pioneers in Law Enforcement and feature Edwin Lee Candis, King Solomon Gant, Roosevelt “Bobby” Miller, Henry Perry and Carlton Cooper. They were hired in the early 1960s and their photos, as well as bios for each of the men, are a part of the display.
Plant City Corporal Stevie Carmack was one of the officers who assisted in researching and building the display for PCPD. He reflected on the importance of preserving that history and shared in the triumphs as well as the trials the men faced while wearing the badge.
They weren’t allowed to arrest white citizens. They weren’t given patrol cars and had to walk the areas of town where predominately African-Americans lived. Their friends and neighbors were as shocked to see them in uniform as the white residents were. Some offered their support. Many didn’t. If trouble arrived, the black officers had to think quickly and overcome hurdles their white counterparts did not.
“They were not given radios,” Plant City Corporal Stevie Carmack said. “They were given a handful of dimes. So if they had any issues or emergencies, they had to call for assistance, assistance from other officers to come to their aid.”
But they never gave up, and through their hard work they were able to pave the way for future officers like Carmack, who has been with PCPD since 2008, to join the force.
Edwin Lee Candis was the first to join the department. In 1959, Candis walked into PCPD and said, “I would like to help to see a clean, good community.” He was 33 years old. Candis had served as a shore patrol man in the United States Navy in World War II and worked in construction after the war. During his time with PCPD he received the 1976 Rotary Club Officer of the Year award and the PCPD Officer of the Year award in 1979. He served 24 years, was promoted to Sergeant in 1971 and retired in 1986. He died on Sept. 17, 2005 at age 79.
Henry Perry joined the department on Oct. 16, 1961 to work with Candis. They worked the 4 p.m. to midnight shift and patrolled Lincoln Park on the east side and Madison Park on the west side. Perry transferred to City Hall in 1965 after suffering a heart attack. He died in March 1984.
Carlton Cooper was 25 years old when he replaced Perry in 1965. He attended Florida A&M University and played halfback on the football team. The Tampa Tribune cited him frequently in articles for his arrest of violent criminals. He was part of a 1969 walkout that resulted in better working conditions for the officers.
He received the 1990 East Hillsborough Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award, the 1990 service award from the NAACP and was the recipient of many citizen commendations. He was promoted to Sergeant on Sept. 12, 2980 and retired in March 1996.
King Solomon Gant joined PCPD in Jan. 1967 at the age of 25. He was a Marshall High School graduate and worked in agriculture before joining the department. Gant became one of the first motorcycle officers and was known for being a remarkable role model for the community. He left PCPD to pursue a long career with Tampa Electric Company, where he retired in 1993.
Roosevelt “Bobby” Miller was 34 years old when he joined PCPD in Feb. 1967. He was a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. When hired, he didn’t carry a gun but patrolled with a stick and a whistle. He was a karate expert and was known for his compassionate nature. He didn’t believe every case ended in an arrest and was a mentor to many in his community, including teens who had been arrested.
Miller became the first Plant City crime scene detective in an era where the science of crime scene investigation was in its infancy. In 1977 he trained for a year and a half at the Florida Institute of Law Enforcement at St. Pete Junior College. He retired in 1998 and passed away in 2015.
Barbara Jean Perry-Dexter, daughter of Henry Perry, was the first family member of a featured officer to visit the display. She said her father was a man of few words, but remembers from her youth when he’d share a few stories of his time with PCPD. He was one of 10 children and no one expected him to decide to work as a police officer.
She remembers the day he made the announcement he would join the force.
“I thought to myself, ‘Really daddy? A policeman?’ I was surprised, but he seemed very proud about it, so I was proud too,” she said. “It kind of made me wonder what it would be like to be a PK — a police kid — especially because at the time I only really knew of one other person on the police force. I was proud of him, but we were, well, we were wondering how that was going to work.”
She remembers her dad patrolling the night clubs and hangout spots around the community and said that while he always loved his job, there were moments that “weren’t so nice.” She said he never said names or went into detail, but he’d simply admit he went to a call that was hard to do.
People may have poked at him for being a police officer, but Perry never let it get to him. He taught her and her siblings that the only things that mattered in life were your character and the way you carried yourself. He would tell them to be honest, reliable and trustworthy and would always say that if everyone lived that way, “what a wonderful world this would be.”
Seeing Perry honored alongside the other trailblazers was a sight Perry-Dexter won’t soon forget.
“I think it’s the most awesome thing I have seen,” Perry-Dexter said. “That’s the most I have ever seen of the black, African-American policemen at the time… it shows them and it makes them a real memory, a memory for everyone. I’ve always considered my dad to be a memory in someone else’s mind, but just of those who were alive when my father was here. I have great-great grandchildren now and we talk about it, but they only have my stories and my church circle’s stories. We don’t have a lot of photos of him in a uniform and I’ve always worried that he would just be forgotten when we are gone. But this, this is something that I think will inspire people. It will show people that there were great men that paved the way and they can be great men too.”
Carmack echoed her statement, saying this history needs to be told and we, as a community, need to understand that it’s important.
There is still much room for growth with PCPD. Bradford said PCPD currently has only five black officers in the department. He said they will soon launch a diversity recruitment campaign to get applicants from a variety of different backgrounds to apply to work for PCPD.