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St. Petersburg offers tipsters cash to ferret out illegal guns

Paris Whitehead-Hamilton’s cousin LaShawn Crawford takes a cell phone picture of assault weapons on display Friday.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Paris Whitehead-Hamilton’s cousin LaShawn Crawford takes a cell phone picture of assault weapons on display Friday.

ST. PETERSBURG — The city is launching a reward program to get illegally owned guns off the streets.

Mayor Rick Baker, police Chief Chuck Harmon and several community leaders unveiled a "gun bounty" for weapons, offering $1,500 for each tip leading to an arrest and recovery of an assault weapon and $1,000 for all other firearms.

The initiative, which has had some success in other Florida cities, is a response to a rash of shootings in the past month, including one that killed 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton on April 5.

Paris was shot as she ran from her bedroom window as her Preston Avenue home was riddled with 50 rounds from semiautomatic weapons. Police later seized a cache of weapons, including two AR-15 semiautomatic rifles, when they arrested three suspects in the case.

"This should be a Rosa Parks moment for this city," Sevell Brown, the Florida chapter president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said during a news conference at City Hall. "Let's make sure her life and death are not in vain."

Police ask anyone with information about illegal guns to call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-873-8477. People can remain anonymous but must give information that meets three criteria: The tip must result in an arrest, police must recover at least one weapon, and it must lead to a gun charge.

"I don't care if it's one gang member turning in another gang member," Harmon said. "Maybe that's a good way to eliminate competition."

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said Thursday that the city would launch a gun buyback program, but offered no details. City officials refused to comment until Friday morning.

City officials today stressed that the new program is different from gun buybacks, in which people turn in their own guns for cash. Such programs are "largely ineffective in removing guns from the hands of criminals who use them to commit crimes," the Police Department said in a statement. Most of the people turning in guns were ordinary citizens, not criminals.

Several Florida counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, have experimented with buyback programs with mixed results.

Jacksonville, Miami and Orlando have had gun bounty programs for two to three years. They've resulted in more than 800 seized guns and about 500 arrests.

The bounty program will be paid for through the Police Department's forfeiture fund — about $600,000 seized or collected from drug and other arrests — and private donations to Crime Stoppers of Pinellas County.

People who call in tips to Crime Stoppers, as they do for other crimes, will receive a special code number to remember. They can call back another number to see if the tip resulted in a solved crime and use another code to collect their reward at a designated bank. They do not have to give their name or show identification at any time.

Police have complained that a "don't snitch" code of silence hampers their ability to solve crimes. Three people have been arrested in the killing of Paris, but police think others were involved.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

St. Petersburg offers tipsters cash to ferret out illegal guns 04/24/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 12:52pm]
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