Sunday, December 17, 2017
Public safety

Police, victims know frustration of fighting celebratory gunfire

As New Year's Eve fireworks fizzled, Gail Salerno felt a shove that nearly knocked her to the ground along Beach Drive in downtown St. Petersburg.

What appeared to be a long, .22-caliber bullet had pierced through her $350 Coach bag, split her patent leather Kate Spade coin purse, shattered her compact and hit a bottle of Advil, crushing all the pills inside.

Salerno, 33, believes the bullet came from the east, toward the bay, as it entered her bag sideways. When a nearby police officer pocketed the bullet and told her there was nothing he could do, she grew frustrated.

"I think a lot of people go to First Night and they would want to know if something like this is happening," Salerno said. "I consider that a safe part of town. Now I'm thinking twice about it."

Salerno was not alone in her frustration over a New Year's Eve tradition that no one seems to be able to prevent, enforce or resolve. Numerous gunfire incidents annually are reported to police and hospitals. In most cases, people walk away unharmed. But some, such as the 12-year-old Ruskin boy hospitalized after a bullet penetrated his skull, aren't as fortunate.

And still, after all the publicized tragedies, the shootings continue.

"We send the message that shooting a gun into the air is a crime and what goes up must come down and these bullets come down with enough velocity to really hurt somebody," said St. Petersburg Police spokesman Bill Proffitt. "I'm not really sure what else we can do."

• • •

People get hit by "celebratory gunfire" all the time, law enforcement officials say. Trying to stop it can feel all but pointless.

The St. Petersburg Police Department traditionally airs a 30-second TV commercial warning people about the dangers of fireworks and celebratory gunfire around Independence Day and New Years Eve. This year, Proffitt said, it was posted instead on YouTube, where it got about 300 views.

But getting the word out does not ensure compliance.

"You'd like to think people know better," he said. "But for some people, it's just become an annual ritual, and they just don't think about the consequences."

Other agencies, such as Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, Tampa Police and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, focus less on curbing celebratory gunfire and more on gun safety and responsible gun ownership.

"When we talk gun safety, we most tell people to keep them out of the reach of your kids," Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Debbie Carter said. "People just need to use common sense and know shooting a gun into the air is not a good idea."

• • •

William Fleming, 70, awoke on New Year's Day to find a bullet hole in the roof of his carport. He wasn't surprised.

"I know the local people like to shoot guns into the air on New Year's Eve -— it's their habit," said Fleming, who lives in the 800 block of 32nd Avenue S in St. Petersburg. "I don't think people realize what kind of damage they can do. I don't think they realize how much they can hurt people."

Fleming said it is especially scary that guns are shot in such densely populated areas. He went to bed early on New Year's Eve, but a neighbor told him shots were fired sporadically for several hours.

"There might be another hole in my roof for all the shots that went off," Fleming said. "Guess I won't know until it rains."

Oliver Bailey, 59, found a bullet hole had punctured the metal awning of his front porch when he awoke on Jan. 1. Bailey, a teacher at Gibbs High School, also found a bullet under his front porch. Bailey told police he had heard shooting around 9:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve, but did not go outside to investigate, fearing for his own safety.

Later that day, a slug was removed from the back of Ryan Patrick Riordan, 28, at Palms of Pasadena Hospital. Riordan, who officials said had been shot the night before, did not report the incident to police.

Riordan told hospital workers that he was hit by a stray bullet while working as a valet in St. Petersburg around 12:30 a.m. New Year's Day. He said he had been drinking at the time and was not sure where the bullet had come from, police said.

No suspects have been named in any of the incidents, Proffitt said, noting they were all reported several hours afterward, further complicating the difficult task of identifying a shooter.

• • •

Several Tampa Bay officials said a public awareness campaign couldn't hurt but probably wouldn't help much.

But in Miami, authorities attribute their zero-incident New Year's Eve to a poster campaign that canvassed the city with a catchy slogan and a little star power.

Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado enlisted rapper Pitbull to help spread the message that "one bullet kills the party" in the city's annual warning against shooting guns on New Year's Eve. Pitbull was featured in advertisements posted throughout the city, featuring a bullet speeding at a crowd of dancing partygoers.

Last year, a 6-year-old Italian boy vacationing in Miami was shot in the chest as he was eating dinner with his family on New Years Eve. He survived.

"Year after year, we've seen innocent victims struck and killed by stray bullets," said spokeswoman Officer Kenia Reyes.

This year, Miami Police said they had no incidents related to celebratory gunfire.

"The more people hear our message, the more effective it is," Reyes said. "This year, I'm proud to say, people got the message. Spreading the word is the key to putting a stop to the shootings."

Outreach only addresses part of the problem, said Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg. Ideally, he said, guns wouldn't land in the hands of reckless owners.

"When it comes to gun ownership, we're a bit of the wild, wild west down here in Florida," Kriseman said.

Kriseman said the state is unlikely to get involved in the issue.

"The more you can do to educate the public, the better," he said. "It's a start. Maybe it's not enough, but it's better than doing nothing."

Contact Marissa Lang at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.

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