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Faith-based FAST guides St. Petersburg police to crime

ST. PETERSBURG — The parishioners at Holy Family Catholic Church are fed up with violent crime, Father John Tapp says. So are the members of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, the Rev. Robert Ward says.

Now they and other religious leaders are calling on police Chief Chuck Harmon to crack down on what they call hot spots of violence and drug dealing in their neighborhoods.

Tapp and Ward are co-chairmen of Faith and Action for Strength Together, a group of 32 congregations that is targeting crime. Harmon will meet with some FAST members today at Mount Moriah while residents pray outside for an end to violence and drugs.

"We want them to address our concerns and see some action taken on them," Ward said. "When you speak to our members in our congregations who are driving in their streets and their neighborhoods and going into their homes, they personally have not seen any change in crime."

But police suggest the perception does not match reality.

They point to new numbers showing that serious crime in St. Petersburg decreased the first three months of this year, falling 16.8 percent in Midtown and 12.5 percent for the city overall compared with the same period last year. Serious crime also fell in Midtown last year by 7 percent, though crime increased citywide by 7.3 percent.

The city's definition of serious crime includes murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assault. Still, with 768 serious crimes in Midtown the first three months of this year, residents say the area remains more dangerous than other parts of the city.

There have been nine homicides in St. Petersburg this year, three of them drug related. There were 26 homicides last year. Meanwhile, the city seized 635.6 ounces of crack cocaine last year, nearly double the amount seized in 2006. The number of drug-related arrests is down slightly the first three months of this year from last year.

Harmon said he wants to show that the department is making progress in fighting crime, especially in Midtown.

"Crime actually is down ," Harmon said. "We're working hard on these issues."

FAST leaders plan to give Harmon 56 cards identifying 37 high-crime hot spots. FAST organizers said churchgoers wrote down street corners and other areas that have been focal points of drug dealing and violence.

Harmon said he would treat those hot spots as tips. He said he assigned a police major to work with FAST when the group first told him about its plans, but no one from FAST followed up.

Ward said FAST designed the cards with input from other law enforcement agencies.

For residents of crime-plagued neighborhoods, any moves to fight back are welcome.

Antonia Benjamin, 64, said drugs have been a problem in Childs Park for as long as she can remember.

"These are young boys … they don't understand what they are doing to the neighborhood, their families, the children," she said. "All they think is, oh, it is easy money, but the rest of us are sick of it. We don't want drugs here."

Benjamin, who lives on 17th Street S, said she is tempted to call the police every time a car drives slowly down her street.

Newly elected state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, a former drug addict who has fought to shut down drug houses in Midtown and Childs Park, said police need help from citizens.

"Everyone cannot go stand on a street corner and confront a drug dealer to his face, and we don't expect that, but they can make phone calls," Rouson said. "The police alone cannot stop this problem or abate the spread of it."

Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

>>Fast facts

By the numbers

4,239: Number of serious crimes in St. Petersburg for first three months of 2008.

4,846: Number of serious crimes in the city for the first three months of 2007.

768: Number of serious crimes in Midtown area for first three months of 2008.

923: Number of serious crimes in Midtown for the first three months of 2007.

Faith-based FAST guides St. Petersburg police to crime 04/29/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2008 12:08pm]

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