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St. Petersburg loses its sense of security

ST. PETERSBURG — Twenty-eight days later, it happened again. Another police officer shot in the line of duty in a sunny city of 248,000, still trying to make sense of the deaths of two officers on Jan. 24.

Officials tried to put words to the grief.

"Hell," Mayor Bill Foster called it. "Cities don't prepare for this. Departments don't prepare for this."

On the street, the word was fear. Not of the man police say killed veteran Officer David Crawford, but of something intangible: the loss of a sense of security.

The slaughter of three St. Petersburg police officers in a month has shot fear into the city in a way few random acts of violence can. If the police are vulnerable, what does that mean for the rest of us?

On the streets, at the bus station, in coffee shops, all over town, people talked out their anxiety.

"The bad keep getting badder," said Chuck Johnson, 50 and disabled, who never roams far from home. "Chaos is cranking up."

DeWayne Miller, a 40-year-old chef, is planning to move back to Milwaukee.

A year ago, he was on his way home from work at the St. Pete Yacht Club when he tried to fight off three boys who wanted his backpack. He rode to the hospital with a knife stuck through his hand. A month ago, a man pulled a pistol and demanded his wallet. Miller tossed it on the ground. All yours, he said. The violence has taught him lessons.

"You got to keep your head on a swivel," he said. "And if somebody wants what you've got, you give it to them. It's not worth your life."

But when he watched the news Tuesday morning, he told his girlfriend Florida's sun wasn't shining so bright.

"I'd rather be cold than dead," he said. "If they're shooting police down here, it's time to leave."

While the law searched for the wanted man Tuesday morning, people wondered whether some cultural tremor has shaken civility. Why so many cops? Why now? Why here?

"They show outsiders the beaches and sunshine," said Troy Johnson, 30, rosary beads around his neck, waiting on a bus to take him to class at the Urban League. "But that ain't how it is. It's crazy out here."

Crazy? A city with shuffleboard and hibiscus trees, where yachts lull in the harbor and the elderly convalesce?

"I'd rather go live in the woods," he said.

People talked about how the fear has shaped them, kept them inside at night, made them conscious of how they finger money at the gas station, made them careful not to bump into pedestrians on the sidewalk.

"I've seen an underbelly here that's just nasty," said Bob Blackiston, 47, a former nurse who was about to catch a Greyhound to Philadelphia. "You have a lot of desperate people all in one place."

Blackiston knows such things because he was one of those desperate people, pre-AA. He predicts the latest cop killer is a drug addict, and he knows the mind-set.

"You want to escape your hell," he said. "You want to get high, and you think no further than that. And the pursuit of that high leads you to do bad things."

On sidewalks bordering the manhunt grid, residents floated all sorts of theories to explain the rash of violence against police, as if understanding the motive would help them cope.

Drug addiction. Transients. Bad economy. Racial tension. Video games. Music. Movies. The degradation of families. The failure of churches. Access to guns.

"It's easy to get a gun," said Johnson. "If you have the money, you can get one real cheap." Cheap, like $100. They're called "throwaways." You just need to know the right person.

"It's gangs," said Ladarian Huell, 20, not far from a sign that said: Nice Affordable Rentals, Good Neighbors. "And it ain't going to get better. It's going to get worse. They're going to crack down real hard on the neighborhoods, and something else is going to happen."

A helicopter chopped the blue sky overhead, high above the crime scene, above brick alleys and flower gardens and historic bungalows and clothes drying on a line. Above a sign on the Baha'i Center that says "The Oneness of Mankind" and one on the YWCA that says "Eliminate Racism."

Nearby, a handful of old people in motorized scooters lined up on the sidewalk to watch police sweep a building.

Ricky Smith, 19, walked along Sixth Street South on his way to eat breakfast. He said he had been frisked by police earlier.

"That doesn't bother me," he said. "I'm used to that."

It's young men his age who are targeted as criminals, he said. He does not think that's unfair. But he has noticed that something has changed in those interactions with police. The criminals aren't in fear.

"It used to be that people were scared of the police," he said. "It used to be, run.

"Now it's shoot."

Times staff writer Emily Nipps contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.

St. Petersburg loses its sense of security 02/22/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 11:02am]
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