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Who garners the respect? Drug dealer or resident?

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2002

Bertha Peoples' and Kamalo Byrd's paths crossed last Tuesday in her home in St. Petersburg's 13th Street Heights.

Bertha Peoples' and Kamalo Byrd's paths crossed last Tuesday in her home in St. Petersburg's 13th Street Heights.

About 5 in the afternoon, Bertha Peoples was napping. Outside, Kamalo Byrd was being chased by police. They thought he was doing a dope deal.

For reasons only he can explain, Byrd decided to run into Mrs. Peoples' house. He yanked open the unlocked porch door, ran through the living room and into the dining room, where Mrs. Peoples was dozing in one chair with her feet propped up on another.

"When he hit that chair," the 62-year-old retired housekeeper said, "he woke me up. He did have the courtesy to say, "Excuse me, ma'am.' "

Having tipped his hat to politeness, Byrd kept running, into the kitchen, and through the back door into the yard. Police officers followed him straight through the house.

They arrested Byrd outside, but not before some sort of explosive device was thrown at the cops by someone in a crowd that had gathered.

The police quickly pulled out because several of them were hurt by the device. Bertha Peoples was left on her own. She finally fainted.

I visited her Friday to talk about the aftermath of her collision with Kamalo Byrd. She wasn't yet over it and isn't likely to be over it for a while.

"I am really, truly frightened," she said.

She doesn't hesitate to say it. Her neighborhood, at the corner of 12th Avenue S and 12th Street is "a drug hole."

She is afraid of break-ins.

She is afraid for her grandchildren. Some of the drug dealers on her block are younger than 12, she said.

St. Petersburg Police Chief Chuck Harmon said Friday that detectives have been working the area since August, making arrests, carrying out search warrants. They must be working invisibly, for Bertha Peoples hasn't seen them. She hasn't seen much of the police at all, until last week and her terrifying experience.

Instead, she has been treated to a not-so-benign neglect.

Since Go Davis was chief, police have been told to be more respectful -- that was the word you heard -- of St. Petersburg's residents.

The only trouble was, which residents?

Clearly, it wasn't residents like Bertha Peoples.

This is what Davis' policies have led to in the neighborhoods like Mrs. Peoples', south of Central Avenue. It's not just the jeering at police. Not just throwing bottles. Or firecrackers.

I mean department policies that have put the squeeze on a woman who worked hard all her life and talks about the Lord -- policies that have ignored the dope pushers who tie up traffic on nights when business is good.

This attitude was supposed to keep the peace south of Central. All it's done is lead to a kind of small-scale anarchy, at least on Mrs. Peoples' block.

"This isn't your neighborhood, and these aren't your streets," somebody in the crowd yelled when Kamalo Byrd was arrested. "We own these streets down here."

In other words, the police had no place on the street where Bertha Peoples lives, and neither did she.

Don't expect this to change soon.

Davis is gone from the department, but remains heavily influential with Mayor Rick Baker and Chief Harmon -- so influential that the man who screamed at the cops last week can continue to think it's still party time on Bertha Peoples' block.

It may mean nothing, but somebody else threw what was probably a firecracker at a passing police cruiser on another street two nights after the incident involving Mrs. Peoples.

It's still party time, all right.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or at (813) 226-3402.

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