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St. Petersburg police chief tangles with mayoral candidate over girl's killing

ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Chuck Harmon fired back at a second mayoral candidate on Wednesday for this offense: "intentionally spreading misinformation."

This time he tangled with former City Council member Kathleen Ford. The chief thought that at Tuesday night's mayoral forum Ford was blaming his officers for not doing enough to prevent the April shooting death of 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton.

"As I think we've moved along in this campaign, people are becoming more flamboyant with their comments and less responsible with them," Harmon said Wednesday. "I'm upset about it. I know they want to win an election but they need to do it responsibly."

The mayoral candidates at the previous night's Harbordale YMCA forum were asked about vacant homes fueling crime in Bartlett Park — where Paris lived and died. Ford brought up the girl's death.

"We need a visible police presence," Ford told Tuesday's crowd. "There's no reason Paris should have died."

Ford then told the crowd that a Bartlett Park resident told her crack cocaine was being sold from the Preston Avenue house where Paris lived with her aunt.

"This was not just an innocent home if you will," Ford said. "There was drug activity."

Harmon said Wednesday that's just not true.

"Frankly, I'm a little offended," the chief said. "I think she has no knowledge of this case other than what she's heard third- or fourth-hand. We've never had any indication that drugs were being sold there."

The chief wasn't at the forum. But he said he was briefed on Ford's comments by members of his command staff who were there.

"That's the impression they got," Harmon said. "That (Ford) was basically blaming us somehow for this little girl's death, and they were offended."

Ford said Wednesday that's not what she meant.

"I'm not blaming the police for Paris' death," she said. "I'm blaming the shooters for Paris' death."

But she also reiterated a common critique of Harmon made by many candidates: that his police force isn't doing enough to target the city's drug trade.

"What I'm saying is that we need to be more proactive about closing down these known drug houses," Ford said.

The chief's tenure, policies and leadership have all been under the microscope during the long mayoral campaign.

At last week's council meeting, Harmon finally fired back at the candidates. His harshest words were for a candidate whose mailer compared Tampa's drop in crime to St. Petersburg's rising crime rate.

The mailing was from candidate Scott Wagman. The chief said it was unfair to compare a six-year drop in Tampa crime to a six-month rise in St. Petersburg's.

On Wednesday he turned his ire toward Ford.

"There were no drugs," Harmon said of Paris' home. "We searched. None of the witnesses from the homicide investigation indicated that drugs were being sold.

"I think (Ford) is misinformed at the very least, and I think she's preying on emotions here that she shouldn't be."

Paris died April 5 when her home was raked by more than 50 semiautomatic rifle rounds. She was in bed when the shooting started early that morning, then cut down as she ran for cover. Though drugs have never been officially linked to her death, local gangs have been. The bullets fired at Paris' home were meant for a rival gang member inside — the end result of an escalating gang feud, police said. Paris's aunt allowed people to come and go from the house, including young men associated with local gangs. Nine people were in the home that morning.

Three men, all age 19, were charged with first-degree murder in connection with the girl's death. A fourth young man is also under investigation.

Days after Paris' death, police raided two drug houses in Bartlett Park and made several arrests.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

St. Petersburg police chief tangles with mayoral candidate over girl's killing 08/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 27, 2009 1:17am]
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