Bill Maxwell

The path to law, order and safety

Like so many other crimes, the shooting death of St. Petersburg police Officer David Crawford last week shines yet another harsh light on the city's African-American residents and their neighborhoods that are south of Central Avenue.

I have lived here off and on since 1994, and I have seen the black neighborhoods become more isolated from the rest of the city primarily because of crime and perceptions of crime. And there is a lot of crime, much of it violent.

A major reason for this phenomenon is that black residents themselves have created a permissive environment, one that is conducive to crime and self-destructive behavior. I have said it before, and I will say it again: Until black people (of course, I am not referring to every single person) in St. Petersburg embrace zero tolerance for crime and behaviors that engender crime, their neighborhoods will remain unsafe and isolated.

By zero tolerance, I mean comprehending the reality that crime is corrosive in every way: physically, financially, spiritually, ethically, emotionally and psychologically. Second, zero tolerance means adopting a mature attitude toward the police and becoming an active and earnest partner in helping the police arrest criminals.

African-Americans must break taboos and become reliable eyes and ears for the police. Please do not remind me that the nation has a long history of abuse and mistrust between black people and the police. Blacks must put that history into proper perspective for their own benefit and survival.

The day after Officer Crawford's death, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and police Chief Chuck Harmon said publicly that to catch the killer, who had slipped through the first police perimeter, the community would have to help. The Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP, fully aware of the bad blood between African-Americans and the police, told the St. Petersburg Times: "There's some residual sentiment out there that the police are against us and anybody who helps them is perceived as a traitor to the community."

Yet to his credit, Sykes — along with 35 pastors, community leaders and other NAACP officials — met to establish ways for people with information about the shooting to contact law enforcement.

For St. Petersburg, this was an important meeting. It could, in fact, be the beginning of raising the bar for black leaders regarding their role in forging relations between blacks and the police. Until now, most black leaders, including pastors, feared retribution and remained silent when residents refused to help the police.

"The bottom line," Sykes told the Times, "is if our community is going to have law and order, the leaders have to play a part in it, make a clear line of demarcation against those who do wrong and those who are against wrong. And I believe we can inspire that kind of courage."

To outsiders, such an observation may seem like a no-brainer. It is not. I know firsthand that Sykes' words buck tradition and challenge conventional wisdom so radically that many blacks will condemn him as a sellout. No matter. He is right, and he and other leaders should not attempt to mollify their detractors.

The "antisnitching" credo is a yoke.

Here is the paradox of that credo: Blacks think that by not helping the police catch black criminals, they are "getting even" with the police or punishing them. In truth, blacks are only hurting themselves. Hardly any police, including black officers, live in high-crime black neighborhoods. They live in areas where they can rear their children in relative safety and enjoy the amenities that come with safe environments. They do not live with the criminals and gang members who terrorize their neighborhoods.

By not snitching, black residents condemn themselves to living with crime and unsavory behavior, hurting only themselves. Their silence further isolates them from the rest of the city.

Why are these simple truths so hard to comprehend?

The 16-year-old whom police say killed Officer Crawford was arrested after several tips came in to police. We don't know who called, or where the calls came from. But I commend Sykes, the NAACP and the other leaders who want to chart a new course to bring law and order to St. Petersburg's black neighborhoods.

The path to law, order and safety 02/25/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 7:53pm]

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