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Homicides hit 40-year low in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — As the decade neared its end last year, gun violence was on the rise. Six people were shot, including a St. Petersburg detective, in a string of South Pinellas robberies.

Then two girls, ages 8 and 15, were shot dead in the same neighborhood within months of each other. The youngest victim died in the midst of a gang feud. Would there be retaliation?

The city braced itself for a deadly 2009.

Quite the opposite happened.

In 2009 the city saw the lowest number of slayings in 40 years, according to St. Petersburg police. There were 11 homicides.

It's an important statistic in a city that had as many as 44 homicides at the height of the crack epidemic in 1989 — and as many as 30 just five years ago. The homicide statistics cover the crimes of murder and manslaughter.

Homicides have been declining for three straight years. Last year they dropped 45 percent in one of the biggest one-year declines in city history, down from 20 in 2008.

It's not a statistic that police are touting, St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon said, because they really can't explain it.

"I think homicides are probably the most difficult crime to prevent," Harmon said, "because of the relationship of the offenders and suspects."

But police did offer some theories.

• • •

Malayshia Gamble was just 15 when she was found in an alley in her Preston Avenue neighborhood in January 2009.

It was the same neighborhood where 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton was shot, an innocent victim caught in a feud between neighborhood gangs.

Police feared the feud would not end with Paris' death. Her family pleaded for calm. Tensions ran high that April.

Police said they were already working to prevent more violence. The CAPE unit — or Community Police and Engagement unit (since disbanded) — was already working Bartlett Park, going door-to-door, talking to residents, identifying trouble spots.

"I think we were very visible in the community, and I think we were very proactive," Harmon said. "We responded quickly, which I think prevented a lot of retribution."

After Paris died, SWAT teams conducted drug raids on two homes in Bartlett Park, just a few blocks from the girl's home.

• • •

Police also hope their new "pattern violence" policy, started in 2008, helped keep the peace. It was a way of coordinating a response to gang violence across different units to prevent one violent episode from spinning out of control.

After a gang-related shooting, for example, police would call in the gang unit right away to help identify the groups involved. They'd also warn school resource officers to be on the lookout for friction between those groups in schools.

"That dispute might end up in school the next day, it might end up in somebody's house that night," said Assistant Chief Dave DeKay. "But a lot of times the gang unit and the schools wouldn't know about it until the next morning.

"The whole goal was to jump on it, to send an officer to make sure they didn't do a drive-by, to notify the SRO at school so they wouldn't be caught off guard by fights from the previous night."

• • •

Domestic violence resulted in five of the city's 11 homicides in 2009. Also, nine of those victims were killed by firearms.

To address those issues, police implemented a "preferred arrest" policy, telling officers they should err on the side of making an arrest when investigating domestic violence.

Police also focused on the city's most violent offenders, assigning officers to keep tabs on them.

"We have people whose names come up time and time again," DeKay said. "If they have a warrant or a charge out there, we try to put them in jail right away."

After Paris' death, police implemented a "gun bounty" program. It's different than a gun buyback, in which people turn in their own guns for cash and which Harmon believes is ineffective.

The gun bounty program pays $1,500 for each tip leading to an arrest and recovery of an assault weapon, and $1,000 for other guns. Police said the program netted 106 firearms in 2009.

But when it comes to crime, the good news always has its limits. St. Petersburg was one of the few Tampa Bay area communities that saw overall crime rise in 2009, up 9 percent. The jump was fueled largely by a 55 percent spike in vehicle thefts.

"For anyone to say they've got the solution is just hard to believe," Harmon said. "I don't have any reason to say why this was a 40-year low, but I'm hoping some of the things we did made a difference."

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

Homicides hit 40-year low in St. Petersburg 03/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 7:16pm]

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