Recent incidents of violence in our community remind us that while we have made great strides in reducing crime in recent years, we must continue to build on our ongoing efforts to make our city safer if we are to avoid the escalation of violent crime that is gripping other major cities across America.
Public safety is the No. 1 responsibility of any city. Although crime prevention is more than just a police issue, it is first and foremost the job of the Police Department.
I am proud of our police chief and the men and women who serve with him. In recent years, we have taken positive steps to make St. Petersburg safer, including increasing our number of officers so that our patrol staffing has remained at full strength for the first time in many years; we have established and increased the Street Crimes Unit with a focus on drugs — one of the leading causes of violent crime — resulting in an increase of drug arrests of more than 90.5 percent over the past five years; we have overhauled our community policing effort to make it more accountable and effective, with results that have received praise from our neighborhood leaders; and we have recently overhauled our computerized law enforcement system so that officers have real-time information in their patrol cars — a move that greatly improves both the officers' safety and effectiveness. Partially through these efforts, over the past five years our total reported crime is down 9 percent and violent crime down more than 13 percent, but even one crime is too many.
Public safety is more than just police efforts. Part of the solution is influencing youth to lead productive lives instead of falling into crime. Recreation leaders at centers throughout our city focus countless hours and energies on athletic and community programs geared toward helping our young people. Similarly, private programs in churches, organizations like the Harbordale YMCA and Royal Theater Boys and Girls Club in Midtown, Everyone's Youth United in Childs Park, the under-construction Childs Park YMCA, and others, deserve both praise and public support for their positive influence.
By the end of next year we will have given out 1,000 privately funded college scholarships to low-income sixth-grade children in St. Petersburg's schools, with the primary caveat that they must stay crime- and drug-free through high school graduation — a great and effective incentive to take the right path. And our city has trained more than 1,000 mentors to go into our schools, perhaps the most effective means of providing a caring role model for a child in need of one. I strongly recommend that anyone who would truly like to provide a positive voice should sign up to mentor a child by calling (727) 551-3180.
Another part of the public safety effort is to change the environment of places that historically have experienced high crime rates. Our significant and successful efforts in Midtown have resulted in a community that provides more opportunities and amenities. When you replace drug apartments, pool halls and boarded-up buildings with a new grocery store, library, post office, St. Petersburg College, theater, shopping centers, clinic at Mercy Hospital, Job Corps campus and much more, the "broken window" theory tells you that crime will go down. And although violent crime in Midtown has dropped more than 17 percent in the last five years, diligence is required to maintain the downward trend.
Finally, as a nation, we have to find a way to change the culture of violence and disrespect that has invaded the music, movies, video games and minds of many of our youth. The city has established the "St. Pete Values" program that requires that our recreation programs, which touch 18,000 children each year, have elements that promote the core values of self-discipline, teamwork, achievement, honesty, respect and responsibility. But the government can have only a limited impact on strengthening the values of our children.
Our churches, community groups, individuals and media must each stand up for traditional American values. Illegal drugs are destructive to the individual and society and should not be glorified in any quarter — especially in comic strips or movies available to children. Guns are not a symbol of manhood — in the wrong hands they are self-destructive. The public, including our young people, needs to help police in their efforts to rid the community of illegal guns and report the crimes they see. Our anonymous tip line is (727) 892-5000.
Leaders and role models throughout our community must have the courage to tell our kids that violence is not to be glorified, people are to be respected, honesty is a good thing, hard work will lead to a good life, and we all have a responsibility to love and help our neighbor. The solution to a safer city requires the efforts of all of us. Rather than curse the dark, we need the entire community to join hands to light the candle.
Rick Baker is the mayor of St. Petersburg.