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Top cop takes aim at crime

He took on the crooks. He took on his peers and the others who are supposed to set an example. He even took on the federal drug czar. St. Petersburg Police Chief Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger came out blasting at the meeting Tuesday night of citywide Crime Watch.

He told the crowd of more than 500 that by the end of the evening they would know where he stood. By the end, many repeatedly applauded what they had heard.

"I liked it all. Cut and dry. The way it should be," Crime Watch member Carol Puckelwartz said.

Curtsinger, a 26-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, made several things very clear.

He wants to push crime out of the city. He plans to change how policing is done here to make it happen. He is going to call on residents' help like it never has been called on before.

But Curtsinger assured residents that he ultimately will be responsible if the job isn't done.

"I challenge you to come see me because I'm the man at the helm, and I've got to be held accountable," he said from the pulpit of Northside Baptist Church. "I'm your chief. I don't belong to Mr. (City Manager Bob) Obering. I don't belong to the City Council. I belong to the city of St. Petersburg."

Curtsinger began by outlining his theories on the deterioration of society.

"All of the traditional control devices that we grew up with are fading and fading very quickly," he said.

A president has been forced from office, he said. Church leaders and police chiefs have been indicted, and schools are failing children.

"What are we teaching our children? Not a lot," he said.

Law enforcement officials "are perfectly happy maintaining the status quo. We are not better off crimewise than we were 100 years ago because we're doing everything the same way."

Curtsinger even zinged drug czar William Bennett, questioning the Bush administration's commitment to a national drug policy. The chief recalled the federal drug czar's visit to Los Angeles. Bennett, a former U.S. secretary of education, gazed at pictures on the wall, ignoring children who lined up to greet him. Curtsinger said he got up and left.

"What the hell is his history for drug enforcement? He's a schoolteacher, and he wants to be president," Curtsinger said.

As society deteriorates, a generation has been lost and a second may follow, the chief said. In the quarter of Los Angeles where he was second in command, the majority of students didn't graduate from high school and most came from single-parent homes. The example set for children is violence within the home and drug-dealing as a profession, he said.

"The family unit has been absolutely destroyed," he said. "What do you suppose those children have for a future?"

The same does not have to happen in St. Petersburg, Curtsinger said. "I take responsibility for that. That's my job."

Curtsinger advocated community-based policing. In St. Petersburg, officers will know the families in their area, how many kids they have and what kind of cars they drive.

"The basic philosophy of community-based policing is you're in touch with your police officer. It can't be any other way," he said.

He said he also will strengthen Crime Watch and put more undercover officers on the streets.

"We're going to have a group of officers in St. Petersburg that I defy you to find. But the crooks will (find out) they're there," he said.

Curtsinger's goal, he said, is to drive the drug dealers and other criminals from St. Petersburg. If other police chiefs share his strong stands, "eventually we'll back them into the ocean."

But other parts of the system will have to change, he said. The judges and sheriff also will have to be accountable.

"We had this notion that we could simply separate all the bad guys from the good guys and put them in jail. You can't afford that," he said.

"If we get (the criminal) some professional help, maybe we don't have to put him in jail again," he said.

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