ST. PETERSBURG — Local leaders said Monday evening that juveniles stealing cars is the number-one public safety threat in Pinellas County and needs to be addressed immediately.
At a meeting convened by U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, city and county officials pointed to the Tampa Bay Times' "Hot Wheels" series, which they said drew attention to the dangerous epidemic and brought the problem to the forefront.
"My family has lived here since 1976 and I've never seen a public safety issue like this one before," said St. Petersburg Councilor Ed Montanari.
"It's just a very sad state of affairs, and I'm ready to start implementing solutions to get a hold of this."
The Times stories showed that kids as young as 10 are taking cars — usually unlocked, with keys inside — and driving the wrong way on major roads, speeding down residential streets, blowing red lights and crashing into trees, other cars and houses.
A Times analysis of a year-and-a-half of cases found that juveniles crash stolen cars in Pinellas every four days.
Yet young thieves told reporters they view stealing cars as a game and don't fear the consequences of getting caught. Often, they spend hours or days in a detention center that they likened to day care.
In 2015, the most recent full year for which data were available, cops in Pinellas made 499 juvenile arrests for grand theft auto, more than some of the largest counties in the country, including Miami and Los Angeles.
Last week, the Florida Legislature passed bills that would make it easier to hold the most chronic offenders either in a juvenile detention center or on an electronic monitor. Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign it into law.
But Crist, police chiefs, and civic leaders said they need to do more on a local level to keep kids from stealing cars and to dole out consequences when they do.
"While we're making some progress and the enforcement efforts are mitigating it," said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, "it's still a very very serious problem and still what I'd consider to be the number one public safety issue in Pinellas County."
Crist said he took a lot of notes from the meeting and was going to study them.
"This is a serious problem in our community," he said. "People are dying because of what's happening here."
St. Petersburg City Council Chairwoman Darden Rice said she wanted to have a conversation "about how we can invest in our youth differently."
"How do we turn these kids into a valuable part of our community instead of just a threat?" Rice asked.
Several leaders, including Pinellas School Board member Rene Flowers, stressed the need for after-school programs that engage juveniles and keep them from turning to crime.
Others spoke to the trauma that has marked some of these young thieves' childhoods.
"When we see these crimes, we're looking at at least two victims," said Nick Dempsey, an associate professor of sociology at Eckerd College. Some of these children grow up in households without a reliable parent, proper nutrition or reliable housing, he said. "These kids themselves are often already the victim of concentrated disadvantage."
Some kids feel less safe in their own homes than at the Juvenile Detention Center, said Pinellas Commissioner Pat Gerard: "They eat better there, they sleep better there, and they're less stressed there than in their own homes and in their own neighborhoods."
St. Petersburg Council member Karl Nurse suggested making lockup "less of a positive experience."
"I don't care if it's cutting the grass or weeding the garden or painting the wall," Nurse said. "It shouldn't be something that's a badge of honor."
Many attendees spoke of a need to spread public awareness. St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway said at least seventeen cars were stolen in the week after the Times series ran online. Of those, most were left unlocked and at least two cars were left running. "One kid took the key off the teacher's desk and stole it from the school," Holloway said.
"Parents and neighbors need to wake up."
The Rev. Watson Haynes, president of the Pinellas Urban League, said he told Crist that this was the kind of issue he hoped to see taken to the national level.
Once Pinellas decides its course of action, Haynes said, it could have lessons for other communities dealing with car theft. "We just need to take from this meeting, retreat into our own corners, and figure it out," said Haynes.
Crist said everyone at the meeting "has a personal responsibility" to not drop the ball on finding solutions for the car theft problem.
He said he hopes to reconvene the group in the "not too distant future," when everyone has had time to contemplate the discussion and potential solutions.