An open letter to the citizens of Pinellas County:
Like you, I am deeply saddened by the murders of St. Petersburg police Officers Jeffrey Yaslowitz and David Crawford and Sgt. Thomas Baitinger. On behalf of the Pinellas County Commission, I extend our deepest condolences to their families and loved ones.
The deaths of these officers — particularly Officer Crawford's at the hands of a teenager carrying a gun — is the most tragic and visible local manifestation of a trend that represents a cancer in our community and our nation, one that we cannot afford to ignore, rationalize or simply wish away.
This cancer is the trend of violent crime perpetuated by a growing number of youths — disproportionately male, black and brown — who have little guidance, education or hope, and therefore have nothing to lose.
Violence against our law enforcement officers is but the latest example of a pattern of crime and murder that is all too common in some of our neighborhoods.
Many residents feel trapped in their homes because of drugs and guns in their neighborhoods. Law enforcement cannot solve these problems alone. It will take a renewed and unified community effort to bring an end to this destructive pattern of violence, drugs and guns in our community.
First and foremost is the issue of parenting. Parenting is a responsibility, not an option. Too many children are literally raising themselves, with little guidance or direction from parents, and with many fathers shirking their responsibility to support their children emotionally or financially.
Without parental direction, many adopt the self-defeating "thug" culture that is literally sold to our young people by an entertainment industry more interested in profits than the consequences of the "drugs and thugs" culture they glamorize in music, films and video games.
Let's not dance around the issue. The fact is that we are spending millions of taxpayer dollars on programs and services in an attempt to repair the damage caused by a lack of parenting.
Until we can restore the culture of parenting — and that is a generational effort — we must continue to invest in children's services, mentoring and diversion programs to give at-risk youth a chance to overcome their life challenges, rather than simply incarcerating or expelling them from school on a mass scale. While the most violent offenders should be removed from society, we can't afford to incarcerate our way out of this crisis.
Locally, recently retired Circuit Judge Irene Sullivan was instrumental in working with the courts and law enforcement to implement a successful diversion program that is already turning young offenders to the right path. Every young person we successfully engage not only avoids a potential life of crime and dependency, but also strengthens our community and helps end the cycle of generational poverty and crime, all at a lower cost than multiple arrests and incarceration. We must also continue existing efforts to improve educational opportunities and outcomes.
As a child of St. Petersburg's Midtown, I know that the vast majority of its residents (and similar Pinellas communities) are hardworking, law abiding citizens. Likewise, it must be noted that many of our young people are performing well in school, have excellent conduct and have bright futures.
But the growing number of youths who are falling into the abyss of drugs, guns and violence requires our community's full attention, determination and commitment to the restoration of hope, not just for our youth, but for the future of our community.
Ken Welch, a resident of St. Petersburg, serves on the Pinellas County Commission.