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A Times Editorial

2 sides of St. Petersburg

More than 50 rounds were fired into a St. Petersburg home early Sunday, killing a girl. Police moved quickly to make an arrest.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

More than 50 rounds were fired into a St. Petersburg home early Sunday, killing a girl. Police moved quickly to make an arrest.

Street violence has no regard for anyone. All too often, the innocent, especially children, pay a tragic price when gunfire erupts in low-income neighborhoods. About 2:20 a.m. Sunday, more than 50 bullets were shot from a semiautomatic rifle into a Bartlett Park home on Preston Avenue S. Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, an 8-year-old student at Imagine Charter School, was shot three times in the back and died.

This senseless violence is not just an issue for the police, who moved quickly to make an arrest. It is not just an issue for the city administration, which has created scholarships, recruited mentors and brought redevelopment to the Midtown area. It should not just concern the residents of poor, predominately black neighborhoods south of downtown. All St. Petersburg residents should be as angry and as committed to change as they would be if gunfire had broken the silence on their street Sunday morning.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon called it a "tragic and senseless shooting'' and appropriately expressed his outrage as he walked the neighborhood. Stephen C. Harper, 18, was arrested on charges of being a principal to first-degree murder; police said he planned and participated in the shooting. Harper is a product of the area's violent subculture, where two others were killed in recent months. Since age 9, he has had repeated run-ins with the law, including arrests for possession of cocaine and marijuana and fleeing from the police. Once again, a community is left to mourn the loss of a child and to ponder the actions of a teenager whose life appears to have veered far off course at nearly the same age as the victim's.

Mayor Rick Baker, who has talked of making St. Petersburg a "seamless city,'' was particularly direct Sunday: "We are going to very aggressively go after the folks that were responsible for this, and we'll seek the most severe penalties." And on Monday, St. Petersburg NAACP president Ray Tampa talked of calls for a march. That could raise awareness and reinforce that neighborhood residents will not continue to tolerate gunfire and violence on their streets. It was a positive sign on Sunday that police were able to move quickly in neighborhoods where too many residents have often been unwilling or afraid to provide information that could lead to arrests.

But what happens next should be a matter of concern for the entire community. As Tampa noted, the shooting raises a multitude of familiar and complicated issues: too many powerful weapons on the street, too few role models for teenagers looking to prove themselves, too little emphasis on education. These are challenges that affect all of St. Petersburg, and the consequences of ignoring them will be felt in our schools, at our businesses and on streets far beyond Preston Avenue. Tackling them will take a community effort that offers more than one-dimensional solutions, and it will require the same energy and imagination devoted to other civic endeavors.

2 sides of St. Petersburg 04/06/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 7, 2009 9:00am]

    

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