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If only numbers had human faces too

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 26, 2002


After several days of studying a page full of numbers called the "City of St. Petersburg Uniform Crime Report -- Drug Arrests 1998-2001 by District and Midtown Area," after performing all sorts of arithmetic, turning the paper in every direction to see if the numbers changed like speed limit signs at night, and ultimately folding it into an airplane, I reached a couple of insightful, radical conclusions.

One, St. Petersburg has a drug problem; two, police arrest a lot of people.

I don't know how much one affects the other, but beyond those two, few conclusions could be reached that withstood the test of consistency. For example, if I tried to say drug arrests have been declining, I wouldn't have much of a trend on which to base that thesis. True, the total number of arrests in 2000 was lower than the total in 1999, and the total for 2001 was lower than in 2000. But the totals for 2000 and 1998 were identical, sandwiching 1999, which had the highest total of all.

I couldn't say the problem was confined to one part of the city, because the arrests came from each of the three policing districts, and the numbers were surprisingly close.

A somewhat overused excuse says that numbers can be made to say anything. Usually that assertion comes from the losing side in a debate. But the strongest statement these numbers seem to make is that maybe too many statements are already being made. The four years' worth of month-by-month tabulations of drug arrests just don't support some of the popularly held myths that propel this city's war on drugs and its war against itself.

Stationing an officer on every corner in District 3, the southern district, would not cure the drug problem, as some are convinced it would. That -- and this should probably come with the warning label: May cause severe cognitive dissonance -- would reduce the overall problem by a little more than one-third. The western district also accounts for just more than a third; the northern district, about one-fourth.

So why does all the hoopla about enforcement center on District 3?

Why does the call for more aggressive policing hold the red flag over the southern district?

Why is it always the southern district that screams police brutality loudest?

The answer to each question, in St. Petersburg and every other largely segregated city (which still describes most), is because it's black. That fact shapes perception, history and current events. Race skews proportionality. Just as a table of loud diners seems louder if they look or talk different, an area can appear more prone to crime than another for the same reasons, even when the facts do not support such a conclusion.

We tend to view criminals who look like us -- especially if they're young -- the way drug criminals who get arrested generally are: as aberrations, misguided. We analyze ad nauseum to find and, if possible, fix the thing that went wrong.

Outside that group, they're simply regarded as criminals, for which law enforcement is the solution. That's where former police Chief Goliath Davis clashed with politicians and other law enforcement officials over the federally funded Weed and Seed program when he advocated drug treatment as more effective than law enforcement in solving District 3's drug problem. He grew up there and saw the aberrant, troubled individuals, not the herd of criminals others saw.

That's an important distinction. Police officers are vulnerable to the same perceptions of communities and individuals, which makes the report on drug arrests even less clear in its implications. Drug arrests overwhelmingly are the result of stings or other targeted police operations. They usually occur after police become suspicious of an area or individuals. So it is unclear whether the report reflects the level of crime in the three districts or the level of attention focused on it.

Undeniably, the activity is more visible in District 3, the fast-food, drive-through, takeout franchise of the drug trade. District 2 is more of a dine-in establishment, and District 1 is a combination of the two.

The visibility in District 3 leads to foot chases and public apprehensions, where every move is critiqued and every use of force is evaluated on the spot by people who do not trust the police. Many with good reason. There is a history, dating back beyond the time when Klansmen wore law enforcement uniforms to work, of police abuse of black people and others who through poverty or ethnicity are powerless. That history has become a part of scandalous current events in police departments from Los Angeles to Miami, providing undeniable evidence that there are enough corrupt cops to tarnish the heroic work of the others.

Already tense relations between police and depressed communities are further strained when good cops observe their antiquated code and defend the ones who violate them and their communities. Those communities strain the relationship when they observe their own code and refuse to help police weed out the criminals among them.

No matter how long I study the crime report, the numbers produce more questions than answers.

But this we know without question: The city has a drug problem and police arrest a lot of people.

It has been that way for years.

My guess is that it will continue to be that way until we figure out that only police can purge their ranks and only communities can purge theirs.

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail gosier@sptimes.com.

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