ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Chuck Harmon agreed Wednesday to investigate a list of "hot spots" of violence and drug dealing compiled by an advocacy group of local churches, but he didn't commit to attending a large gathering of church members next year.
In addition, Harmon agreed to report back to the Faith and Action for Strength Together, a coalition of 32 congregations, with progress reports on the department's investigations into the "hot spots." FAST compiled a list of 39 hot spots based on a survey of church members.
"We're going to treat these as we would any other tips," Harmon said. "We're going to follow through."
Harmon said he wanted to see how the department's new relationship with FAST progressed before agreeing to appear before a large gathering. Harmon, like some local elected officials, did not attend this year's gathering, citing concerns with the format.
Harmon and other Police Department officials had a private meeting with FAST ministers and others at the Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church. As they met, a group of church members prayed together and sang hymns like Amazing Grace. They prayed the Police Department would listen to their concerns.
"I think it went well and that we're off to a good start," said the Rev. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church, who was in the meeting with Harmon.
FAST pushed for a meeting with Harmon because of concerns by members that drug dealing and violence had gotten out of control. But police statistics show that serious crime has declined in recent years in both the city and Midtown, a 5.5-square-mile area from Second Avenue N to 30th Avenue S, between Fourth and 34th streets.
Still, residents say they want to see bigger improvements in their neighborhoods.
"They have to get rid of the drug dealing," said Emma Mitchell, 65. "These days, in the neighborhoods, even young children are getting into it."
Tommy Ward, 48, an associate minister at Mount Moriah, said he hoped to see Harmon at next year's Nehemiah Action meeting.
"I feel today was a positive start and that it opens a door for more," he said.
For his part, Harmon said that the city needs help from churches and other community leaders to cut down on the crime rate. He urged church members to mentor youths and steer them away from crime.
"I don't think we are going to incarcerate our way out of this issue," Harmon said.