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Interfaith group points St. Petersburg police to criminal 'hot spots'

Austin Peterson, left, an elder with Bethel Community Baptist Church, and St. Petersburg Assistant Police Chief Luke Williams, right, participate in the FAST rally on Monday at Greater Mount Zion AME Church.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Austin Peterson, left, an elder with Bethel Community Baptist Church, and St. Petersburg Assistant Police Chief Luke Williams, right, participate in the FAST rally on Monday at Greater Mount Zion AME Church.

ST. PETERSBURG — They moved into the rental in the alley behind Montrose Boulevard N more than six months ago. They're all young males. Drug-dealing and other crimes soon followed in Allendale, residents said.

"There have been a few break-ins in the neighborhood," said resident Pam Smith, 64. "We know who's behind them."

Residents hope that will come to an abrupt end in the coming weeks.

That's because the address of that Allendale home and the location of 19 other suspected drug "hot spots" was handed over to St. Petersburg Assistant Police Chief Luke Williams at the Monday night rally held by Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST.

FAST is an interfaith civic group composed of 38 houses of worship in Pinellas County. More than 700 members packed into Greater Mount Zion AME Church on Monday to call attention to drug-dealing, illiteracy and unemployment.

"Some of us suffer from what I call the 'ostrich syndrome,' " the Rev. Clarence Williams told the gathering. "We stick our heads in the sand and pretend nothing's wrong."

But FAST has faith that police will act on the list of hot spots. The campaign has worked before. When FAST handed over a list of 80 drug spots in 2010, police cleaned up most of them. Smith said police are already investigating the suspicious rental in her neighborhood.

"We've had really good success," said Marty Brinsko, 64, who serves on the FAST drugs and crime committee. "But as so often happens, new ones pop up and some of the old ones eventually come back."

But some of FAST's calls for actions ran right into the reality of budget cuts. Case in point: FAST wants to restore the defunct inmate rehabilitation program at the Pinellas jail.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office used to have a program called Smart Choices that trained inmates to re-enter society. It cost $720,000 and employed 12 people. But in 2010 the Sheriff's Office cut the program.

Temple Beth-El's Karen Berman, 43, said that FAST's own research showed that the Smart Choices program reduced recidivism to 40 percent. But without the program, that rate shot up to 70 percent. "I hate … the term no-brainer," Berman said. "But it just seems like a no-brainer. I think less than 1 percent of the sheriff's budget could go to that type of rehabilitation program."

The problem with that, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said, is his budget. The Sheriff's Office has already lost $108 million and 616 positions in the past four fiscal years, he said. His budget will likely shrink in fiscal year 2013 and then again in 2014. There's no point in funding the program one year, Gualtieri said, if that funding will disappear the next.

"It's not fair to the participants and to the employees to bring something in and have it yo-yo back and forth," Gualtieri said. "I'd love nothing better than to implement a program like we had with Smart Choices.

"But it's got to be done in a responsible way."

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

Interfaith group points St. Petersburg police to criminal 'hot spots' 02/27/12 [Last modified: Monday, February 27, 2012 11:41pm]
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