The Pinellas Trail is an outstanding recreational facility enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of residents and tourists annually. However, recent crimes along some sections of the trail, combined with cuts in the county parks department, are cause for concern. It is important that the public feel safe using the trail, so county officials and law enforcement need to demonstrate they have the situation in hand.
The attempted mugging a week ago of a 12-year-old girl who was walking to school was only the latest incident on the St. Petersburg portion of the trail. The girl and her 6-year-old sister were walking to their Azalea schools when a young man grabbed the girl and rifled through her pockets, perhaps searching for her lunch money. The girl slapped and kicked her assailant until he let her go. The suspect has not been caught and the girl, while frightened, was not hurt.
Teacher Karen Meister was not so fortunate. She was knocked off her bike and seriously injured while riding on the trail in St. Petersburg in July. The two men who hit her in the head also robbed her. Two suspects who lived near the trail were arrested. Earlier this year, a 52-year-old man was hit in the face with a backpack as he biked past two individuals standing alongside the trail in south Pinellas. He escaped. In the Gulfport area, two teen boys were robbed of the few dollars they carried.
Crime is present along the length of the trail from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg, but it is sporadic and usually minor — graffiti, vandalism and criminal mischief. For most people, in most places and on most days, the Pinellas Trail offers a safe environment for exercising and traveling from place to place.
However, assaults and robberies, armed and unarmed, in the last year on parts of the trail require that law enforcement agencies throughout the county keep a close eye on the sections in their communities and consider extra patrols. The rocky economy and high unemployment can lead some to commit desperate acts and may result in more robberies, especially along sections of the trail that are not in full view of busy streets.
Homeless people also have been camping alongside the trail, so maintenance crews are trying to keep vegetation trimmed back, said Jerry Cumings, one of the county park supervisors responsible for a portion of the Pinellas Trail. However, both maintenance crews and park rangers are spread thin as a result of county budget cuts. At any one time, there may be only three or four county rangers on some 45 miles of trail. The county government is counting on a corps of volunteer rangers to help.
"Just like any public space, there's always the potential for trouble" on the trail, said Paul Cozzie, county director of culture, education and leisure. He said some cities have placed undercover police officers on sections of the trail where crime spiked. On any section of the trail, law enforcement will respond aggressively if trail users call 911, he said.
The county should consider installing emergency call boxes on isolated sections of the trail where crime has been a problem. For now, officials advise people to carry a cell phone when they are using the trail and to call 911 if they need help or observe something suspicious. Cumings also urges users to let someone know what section of trail they will be using, travel in groups when possible, and if alone, use only secure trail areas.
The trail is a gem in urban Pinellas. Local governments, law enforcement and trail users need to work together to keep it safe and appealing.