St. Petersburg's crime statistics tell one story — crime rates are falling. But the city's crime news tells another — violent crime is still a horrific fact of life in some neighborhoods. Teenagers are gunning each other down in the streets over a feud whose origins no one can adequately explain. Random bullets crash through the walls of people's homes. Children are caught in the cross fire of rival gangs.
This kind of violence may be a fact of life in most American cities, but we must never accept it as a way of life in mostly poor, black neighborhoods.
In the latest shooting, a 13-year-old St. Petersburg resident was charged with attempted murder. The only connection the 15-year-old victim had to the alleged shooter is that the victim's sister was present, though not involved, nine days earlier at another shooting (this one fatal and maybe linked to a year-old murder). Between the recent shootings, the home where the latest victim's mother and his six siblings live was riddled with bullets.
In addition to these shootings, four people were gunned down (two fatally) one recent night, this time in various parts of the city and unrelated to the teenage feud. On Christmas night it was a melee at BayWalk downtown and a nearby shooting.
Most people understand that police action by itself cannot solve the problem, although it can make a difference. Mayor Rick Baker has been criticized for not speaking out more forcefully on violent crime, but he has been battling the problem on a broad front with root-cause initiatives in education, community development and youth programs. (See his commentary on the opposite page.) City police have stepped up efforts to defuse these senseless feuds, acting against those who are likely to be involved, including arresting teens for illegal possession of concealed firearms. Maybe police Chief Chuck Harmon should consider even tougher enforcement of gun laws, even if it means asking for outside law enforcement help.
Leaders in the black community, where a disproportionate amount of the violence has occurred, need to step forward as well. City Council member Wengay Newton spoke passionately about responding to the scourge of youth crime in his district during his campaign last year. He is now in a position to put that talk into action.
And how about Darryl Rouson (almost certain to be elected to the state House in November) taking a look at the challenge, much of it in his district, from a new perspective? The leadership he brought to his antidrug effort could be reprised, with a dose of state resources.
Most importantly, the impetus for change will have to come from the residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods themselves. They can start by rejecting the code of silence that too often hinders the arrests and successful prosecutions of suspects. However, they will need the help of police, city leaders, the clergy and ordinary citizens.
In this case, it really will take a village.