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Is crime risk worse or does it just seem that way?

Police officers work the scene at an Exxon station at First Avenue N and 30th Street in St. Petersburg after a robbery Monday night.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Police officers work the scene at an Exxon station at First Avenue N and 30th Street in St. Petersburg after a robbery Monday night.

ST. PETERSBURG — The numbers have become all too familiar: five violent armed robberies in two months; six innocents wounded by gunfire — including a detective shot in the line of duty Monday night.

With every squeeze of the trigger, the city feels less safe.

"It's scary," said Ralph Mobley, 44, who works in an office across the street from Monday's crime scene. "When I get off late, I head straight home. I make sure I have everything I need and I stay inside.

"It seems like you can't even go out and have fun anymore."

The violence has caused a rift between the police chief and some city leaders who say they've been left in the dark about police efforts to combat crime or comfort worried residents.

"I know the police are trying, but we are going to have to do something else," said council member Bill Dudley, "because whatever it is that we are doing is not working."

Police Chief Chuck Harmon acknowledged that short term crime rampages can stir up community outrage.

However, the chief said, perception is not reality.

While robberies and burglaries are up 8 and 14 percent, respectively, overall crime is down slightly. Homicides fell 23 percent between 2007 and 2008.

"People need to look at the facts," said Harmon. "The fact is violent crime is down."

• • •

But statistics haven't captured the public's attention like a steady stream of short-term — but extremely violent — spates of crime have this past year.

"They can make statistics say whatever they want them to say," said Sgt. Karl Lounge, a Fraternal Order of Police representative. "We have to go with what reality says, that there's a lot of gun-related crimes going on and a lot of people are getting shot."

In early 2008 it was a string of murders that had the city on edge. Then there was the string of Pinellas County taxi cab robberies this summer that left three dead and one driver with a gunshot wound. And Monday was the second time in nine months an undercover officer was shot trying to arrest an armed robber.

"The rank and file would say that, yeah, it's feeling a lot more unsafe than it used to be," said Detective Mark Marland, president of the Pinellas County Police Benevolent Association.

When it comes to combating these kinds of crimes, City Council member Karl Nurse said, the Police Department seems to lack direction.

"I have struggled to figure out whether we have any strategy to combat hot spots," he said. "If they have one, I can't figure out what it is.

"Answering the 911 calls is not a strategy."

• • •

The chief said the public needs to judge the St. Petersburg Police Department by the numbers.

In 2008, forcible sex crimes dropped 18 percent compared with the year before. Aggravated assaults were down 19 percent. Robbery was up 8 percent, but overall violent crime was down 12 percent.

Property crimes rose slightly, up 1.4 percent, thanks to increases in burglary (14 percent) and larceny (6 percent). But that also includes a massive drop in auto thefts (37 percent).

And the chief said his officers have responded each time a violent crimes have gripped the city.

In response to gun-related crimes in 2008, Harmon said his officers went door-to-door in three neighborhoods to gain trust and gather intelligence. The year ended with six fewer homicides than in 2007.

"It is cyclical," the chief said. "It does go up and down."

Then police turned their attention to educating taxi drivers to prevent more robberies.

"We've only had one taxi cab robbery in the last six months," Harmon said.

• • •

So which picture is more accurate? The short-term statistics that suggest the city is unsafe? Or the long-term statistics that say crime is slightly down?

Florida State University criminologist Brian Stults said St. Petersburg may be grappling with a common problem in his field of study:

"It's not uncommon for the short term statistics to seem to contradict the more long-term statistics," he said. "It's not uncommon for what appears to be a wave of violence in a community to really end up being an anomaly."

Law enforcement agencies face the same problem, Stults said, but they have to be cautious: short-term crime statistics can also signal long-term trends.

"That's a constant battle for us," Harmon said. "There are the short-term issues, the homicides, the cab (violence). This year it's the convenience stores.

"We have to respond. We have to develop a plan of action to deal with those things."

• • •

That could also explain the perception gap: police can't — or don't — always say what they're doing to combat crime. They don't want to publicly announce their techniques in a way that could tip off criminals.

"The one thing that the police could do that could be a big help is let the community know what we are doing," said council member Leslie Curran. "Your typical neighborhood individual doesn't understand undercover operations and a lot of times that impacts perceptions."

The detective wounded Monday was shot, police say, trying to arrest three teens who had just robbed a gas station.

But he was also undercover and trailing the teens when the robbery took place. Does that mean police have convenience stores under surveillance?

"I can't confirm or deny that," the chief said.

• • •

Harmon appeared before the council in May and promised to provide regular crime updates.

But he has yet to follow through. That changes next week, when the chief is scheduled to field questions from the council.

But the chief said his officers already attend neighborhood meetings and that the council receives regular updates on crime statistics and manpower.

"Could we communicate better? Probably," Harmon said. "But sometimes I can only give the (council) limited information based on ongoing cases we're working."

The chief has his own perception of crime in the city: "I think St. Petersburg is a safe city. But we're not immune from problems."

Staff writers Kameel Stanley and Emily Nipps contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Is crime risk worse or does it just seem that way? 01/29/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 30, 2009 9:06am]

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