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    A Times Editorial

    Only the rhetoric is out of control

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 14, 2002

    Is St. Petersburg on the verge of a crisis in criminal activity, as one City Council member said this week? Certainly there has been a disturbing spate of violence in a neighborhood along Melrose Avenue S. The latest was a shooting that left a 24-year-old man dead, littered the street with shell casings and terrified law-abiding residents. The victim was the third person murdered in the area in the past 15 months.

    Now, the political rhetoric is flying. Self-appointed community spokespeople are placing blame, some continuing their tiresome litany of criticism against the Police Department and City Hall. Council member Bill Foster concluded, "We are as near crisis level as at any time during my four-year tenure on council," and called Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice for help, stirring up a dormant controversy about the sheriff's role in city drug investigations. As it turned out, police Chief Chuck Harmon had already discussed rebuilding a partnership with the Sheriff's Office.

    City residents are understandably concerned, and probably confused. But there is no reason to believe, as Foster suggested, that crime in the city is out of control. St. Petersburg isn't the only place in America plagued by illegal drug sales or threatened by the growing firepower of criminals. Nor is it, by any measure, the worst. The numbers collected by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement bear that out. St. Petersburg's total crime index has decreased slightly over the past three years, and its per-capita crime rate is significantly lower than the rate in Tampa or Orlando.

    Still, Harmon needs to respond to community fears about open drug dealing in some neighborhoods and the violence it provokes. While it would be unwise for him to reveal all details of how he intends to combat the threat, he could do a better job of communicating his department's resolve to act decisively. And Mayor Rick Baker, Harmon's boss, cannot afford to stand mute as those with questionable motives commandeer the debate.

    The response from City Hall should be clear: The Police Department is going to do whatever it takes to stop criminals from taking over any St. Petersburg neighborhood. Once that is understood, the critics should have little to say.

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