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Few new ideas in political responses to St. Petersburg shooting

ST. PETERSBURG — The city's political elite had plenty to say about Sunday's murder of an 8-year-old girl in her home.

But the men and women who run the city or hope to be elected this fall leaned heavily on recycled ideas and rhetoric this week when asked about solutions to St. Petersburg's violent gun and drug culture. The familiar themes included more police officers, greater community outreach, economic development, gang awareness campaigns and better communication between parents and children.

All are ideas pushed by Mayor Rick Baker during his eight years in office to mixed results.

But candidates and city leaders said that doesn't mean their solutions won't work.

"We are always going to be redoubling our efforts," said Baker, who blamed music and other cultural elements that promote violence. "You have to continue to work at it until there is no crime."

No amount of policing could have prevented the death of Paris Whitehead-Hamilton in her Bartlett Park home, according to a majority of the nine mayoral candidates.

"How were they supposed to know that was going to happen?" said mayoral hopeful and City Council member Jamie Bennett, who now wants to reinstate a gun give-back program. "It is just unjustified to point fingers."

But the girl's death might be the rallying cry residents need to stand up against criminals, leaders said.

"This cuts to the core of public safety, when kids can't sleep in their house," said Scott Wagman, a mayoral candidate and real estate investor who called for a more visible police presence in known hot spots.

Former council member Bill Foster, another mayoral hopeful, said if police want to tackle a rampant "no snitching" culture, they need to build relationships by going door to door, a policy the Police Department has already implemented in Bartlett Park. Foster said he would create an education program for local schools that teaches children about the consequences of gun violence.

Children also need father figures, Foster said.

"We need to appeal to the men of the city, the men of the community to take responsibility for the kids," he said. "This is an all-hands-on-deck appeal."

The response to the shooting seemed to earn police Chief Chuck Harmon, whose leadership capabilities have been criticized recently, some political points. He was praised by Baker, the City Council and most of the candidates.

"He communicated a determination to get the criminals and the anger that the community feels at this kind of violence," said council member Karl Nurse, a sometime critic of Harmon's who represents Bartlett Park.

But the murder lost Harmon at least one supporter.

Mayoral hopeful Sharon Russ said last month that she could see herself working with Harmon if she was elected.

On Monday, she changed her mind. Harmon needs to be fired, she said.

"I don't think Chuck Harmon does anything to assure the public," she said.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Few new ideas in political responses to St. Petersburg shooting 04/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 3:01pm]
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