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Neighborhood leaders call for crackdown on drugs

By BRYAN GILMER, LEANORA MINAI and JON WILSON
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 25, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Three neighborhood association presidents said Thursday that drug dealers are becoming more brazen because the Police Department is reluctant to crack down on drug crimes.

"We're really crying out to the city," said Charles Payne, president of the Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association. A 16-year-old boy was shot in the neighborhood Monday.

"I'm appealing to the entire community of St. Petersburg to call the Mayor's Action Line," he said. "This entire community is bleeding for help. We're tired of losing youngsters to crime, to gunshots."

Mayor Rick Baker, Deputy Mayor Tish Elston and police Chief Chuck Harmon all said alarm is unwarranted and that they are serious about prosecuting drug dealers.

Two of the presidents' neighborhoods are near Eighth Street and 22nd Avenue S, where the 16-year-old boy was shot in the head Monday after the parade honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martez Green had crack cocaine and was shot when he walked up to a car. He remains hospitalized.

That is not far from the scene of a confrontation Tuesday at 12th Avenue S and 12th Street, where someone threw a homemade bomb at officers making a drug arrest. They were only slightly injured. One man mocked the officers and said he was calling Harmon to get a sergeant fired for making the arrest, while another said, "We own the streets down here."

Payne, the Bartlet Park president, said the city should ask for help from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office or even the National Guard.

Chrisshun Cox, president of the Melrose-Mercy/Pine Acres Neighborhood Association, agreed. His neighborhood is just west of where the confrontation and explosion occurred.

"Now the drug dealers have gotten back into a comfort zone because (fired former police chief) Mack Vines is no longer there," Cox said. "The presence of anybody watching them or trying to curb this activity is nonexistent."

More than a dozen people called the mayor's office with similar concerns Thursday. A president of a neighborhood group far from the incidents agreed.

"There's a policing philosophy that becomes pervasive across the entire city that essentially says ignore the small crimes -- don't arrest people if there's any other alternative," Jungle Terrace Civic Association president Steve Plice said.

Baker was frustrated by the complaints.

"There are some using the example that we had an incident during a drug arrest as evidence we don't do drug arrests," Baker said. He reiterated that he expects police officers to defend themselves as necessary and to enforce the law.

"Chuck has said in public many times, and he has said it again today: This is not going to dissuade us from going in and enforcing the drug laws."

Harmon said he has not ordered changes to the department's drug enforcement tactics or policy after Tuesday's incident. He said he may beef up patrols near 12th Avenue S and 12th Street.

"You'll see some high visibility in the area for a while," Harmon said.

Elston, the first deputy mayor, directly supervises Harmon. She said the city does emphasize that officers must respect residents, but she said police are doing more against drugs than residents think.

"Sometimes, drug investigations take a while, and you don't always see results overnight," she said. "The fact is, not everything we are doing makes the front page."

Harmon said police are still trying to identify who threw the explosive, and they have identified but not arrested a suspect in Monday's shooting.

Darryl Rouson, an attorney and president of the St. Petersburg NAACP chapter, said Thursday that he and a 20-year-old man have met with homicide detectives. Rouson said the man, whom he declined to name, shot Martez Green in self-defense.

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