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Police shooting tests Mayor Bill Foster

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster wipes a tear outside Bayfront Medical Center as police Chief Chuck Harmon announces the deaths of two officers. “This is uncharted territory,” Foster said.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster wipes a tear outside Bayfront Medical Center as police Chief Chuck Harmon announces the deaths of two officers. “This is uncharted territory,” Foster said.

ST. PETERSBURG — It was a different Mayor Bill Foster on display before television cameras and City Hall workers Monday after a shootout left two of his police officers dead.

Gone was the laid-back manner that marked Foster's relatively placid first year in office and the cool, abstract lawyer who liked to debate the finer points of zoning laws and budget. In its place was a visibly shaken Foster, trying to make sense of two killings in a city that he says he knows better than anyone.

"It's hard to get your hands around that we lost two," Foster said at the end of an afternoon news conference. "This is uncharted territory."

His world changed as he drove his son to school about 7:45 a.m. He he got a call from fire Chief Jim Large, who told him about gunfire on 28th Avenue S.

Foster dropped off his son and went to the scene. For more than two hours, he said, he watched as police exchanged fire and tried to rescue K-9 Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz, who was trapped in an attic.

"I wasn't going to leave until I knew he was out," Foster said. Yaslowitz was recovered about 9:30 a.m. and taken to Bayfront Medical Center, where wounded Sgt. Thomas Baitinger had been taken. Both were pronounced dead.

At 11 a.m., Foster and police Chief Chuck Harmon told reporters that the officers had died.

"It's a dark day for the city of St. Petersburg," Foster said.

As Harmon described the two men, the mayor looked to the ground and frowned. When tears streaked down his face, he grabbed a tissue from his pocket and wiped his face.

Throughout the day, Foster grappled with how this could happen in "his city": a place his great grandparents helped found, where he grew up and raised a family.

He said he went home briefly after the news conference.

"I hugged my wife, I cried," he said. "I got that out of my system. I knew that a lot of people in this city are depending on me to be strong."

Later, he went to City Hall to talk with City Administrator Tish Elston. He canceled his meetings, but he told her that employees needed to keep working.

He returned to the scene about 2:30 p.m. to get a better sense of who did this in his city.

"It was important for me to see the bad guy," he said. When asked why, Foster replied: "There's no mayor's manual in how to react. A lot of it is emotional."

He was briefed by officers, and he said it assured him that officers had followed protocol.

"It was textbook," Foster said.

Facing reporters again at a 4 p.m. briefing, Foster was still emotional, but more confident.

"It's time to grieve for the officers we lost, and for their families," he said. "We need to lift them up with support and prayer."

He received calls of support all day from other officials, such as Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.

"Pam said, 'No one knows what you're going through, but I do,' " said Foster, who called her last year after two Tampa officers were killed. "She said there's a lot of assistance that goes to police and firefighters after something like this, but nothing for mayors."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Police shooting tests Mayor Bill Foster 01/24/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 7:12am]
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