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Pinellas task force to target violent crime

ST. PETERSBURG — Public outcry about gun violence exploded two years ago when an 8-year-old girl was gunned down in her home, caught in the crossfire of a gang feud.

The outrage crested again earlier this year, when the city lost three police officers in 30 days. Police say the last, Officer David Crawford, was shot by a 16-year-old boy who told authorities he'd bought a gun on the street.

"It's very clear that our dominant crime problem really revolves around young people and violence," council member Karl Nurse said Friday.

On Friday, local leaders announced a new partnership of the St. Petersburg Police Department, Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and State Attorney's Office to combat the issue.

Composed of 15 law enforcement officers and three people from the prosecutor's office, the Pinellas County Violent Crimes Task Force aims to decrease gun violence, round up those with outstanding warrants and increase ties and trust with the community.

"This unit is going to be on the street every single day," said sheriff's Chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri, "and the people are going to see them, and the bad guys are going to see them."

St. Petersburg is dedicating six officers and a sergeant to the effort. The Sheriff's Office has committed six deputies, a sergeant and a lieutenant. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe has assigned two prosecutors and an investigator.

The task force will operate countywide, and won't cost any additional money, officials said.

Although the two law enforcement agencies have worked together is in the past, it has never been to this level, said St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.

Foster cited the recent partnership to launch the Pinellas Safe Harbor shelter as a catalyst for talks about the task force.

"Crime is down," McCabe said. "But in the aftermath of the killing of Officer Crawford, while we were interviewing various witnesses, there was a perception, at least among some members of the community, that they did not think crime was down. They did not feel secure in their homes. They did not feel secure in their streets. They did not feel comfortable talking to us because they were afraid."

McCabe said he hopes the task force will reverse that.

Leaders have agreed to operate the force for six months. But St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon said he wouldn't be surprised if the arrangement continued longer and eventually grew to include other agencies.

"Crime does not stop at the borders of St. Petersburg," Harmon said. "My personal stake is, I'm going to see how many guns we can get off the streets."

Task force officers will hit the street next week. They will start in the High Point area near Largo, where a notorious sex offender was arrested earlier this month, accused of killing his girlfriend then burying her in their back yard. They will target St. Petersburg after that.

"It's an important day for our community," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. "Even in a relatively safe community like ours, violent crime … is a cancer."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at (727) 893-8643 or kstanley@sptimes.com.

Pinellas task force to target violent crime 07/29/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 29, 2011 11:19pm]
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