The numbers are not adding up for the St. Petersburg Police Department. Crime totals citywide generally are down, but residents in some neighborhoods feel less safe. Drug seizures are up, but drug arrests are down. The department has more officers than in recent years, but many of them feel overworked and believe the department is understaffed. The gap between hard numbers and public perception is not healthy for the city, and finally police Chief Chuck Harmon is taking more aggressive action.
The City Council sharply questioned Harmon recently about the disconnect. While there was some attempt to score political points at the chief's expense, the frustration reflected the general sentiment in some parts of the city. Crime may be down 10 percent so far this year compared with a year ago, but that is little comfort for those who feel their neighborhood is not as safe. The numbers may show the department is well-staffed, but that does not help morale if officers believe they are overworked. And despite Harmon's protests that the ratio of officers to residents is a simplistic measure, traditionally having one of the lowest ratios among major Florida cities has to have an impact even if St. Petersburg is not Miami or Jacksonville.
Getting to the root cause of the disconnect between crime statistics and public perception will be difficult. Some of it has to do with high-profile incidents such as the BayWalk melee on Christmas night and a number of shootings this spring. Some of it can be traced to individual experiences; a resident whose car is stolen or who hears about homes burglarized in his neighborhood feels uneasy even if these are isolated incidents. Random gunshots fired well before midnight recently on 34th Street S, a major St. Petersburg thoroughfare, catch the attention of everyone who travels that busy street.
For some neighborhoods, the fear of crime is not tied to isolated events. Childs Park remains a hot spot for the drug trade, despite Mayor Rick Baker's considerable efforts to revitalize the neighborhood. A group of churches, Faith and Action for Strength Together, has given police a list of more than three dozen hot spots of violence and drugs. To his credit, Harmon agreed to investigate and report back to the group.
Now the Police Department is appropriately increasing its visibility in particular neighborhoods and focusing more on gun crimes. Some of the changes, such as planning to make more arrests on gun crimes even if victims are reluctant to cooperate, are overdue. Guns are at the forefront of much of the public concern about crime. Governing magazine reports that Cleveland, Philadelphia and other cities are more aggressively searching for illegal guns and increasing the number of gun-related arrests. If it takes St. Petersburg asking the sheriff for help fighting guns and drugs, do it.
Whether the city should hire more police officers is not the relevant issue at the moment. Like other local governments, St. Petersburg is cutting spending because of Amendment 1 and other economic pressures. This is about setting priorities at City Hall and in the Police Department. It is about community leaders — particularly in predominantly black neighborhoods where a disproportionate amount of violence occurs — stepping forward to work on solutions.
It is better to see crime numbers dropping instead of rising, of course. But they provide little comfort to residents who do not feel safe, and St. Petersburg has work to do to bridge that divide.