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The rule of law // SAFETY, SECURITY FIRST

This week's outbreak of gunfire, arson and other violence in St. Petersburg marks one of the bleakest and most dangerous episodes in the city's history. Such widespread lawlessness is intolerable, no matter what may have provoked it, and local officials should call upon whatever force is required to assure that the violence does not continue.

Government has no higher responsibility than the safety and security of its citizens, and the law-abiding residents in the affected areas of St. Petersburg deserve to know that their government is doing everything in its power to protect them. Until order is firmly restored, that faith is in danger of being broken.

If anything, this explosion of violence was even more disturbing than the one that preceded it three weeks ago. Then, the violence resulted from a spontaneous reaction to the shooting of a black motorist by a white police officer; this time, the lawlessness seems more calculated. Then, the violence generally was limited to rocks and bottles; this time, automatic weapons fire turned several blocks of south St. Petersburg into a war zone. Then, most of the community was caught by surprise; this time, the violence followed three weeks of dialogue aimed at finding peaceful ways of bridging the community's racial divisions.

Three weeks ago, we offered strong praise for the professionalism and restraint displayed by law enforcement officers in the face of ugly provocation. Those officers, along with firefighters and other personnel, again deserve praise for their courage and restraint in an even more dangerous situation. Mindful of the danger to innocent people in the community, officers refrained from returning the gunfire that was aimed at them. It should be remembered that St. Petersburg officers went out and did their jobs despite their displeasure over the 60-day suspension handed down to their colleague James Knight, the officer who fatally shot TyRon Mark Lewis.

However, authorities appeared to be understaffed, underequipped and unprepared for the level of violence they encountered. If so, the failure of organization and planning is inexcusable. Unlike last month's disturbance, authorities had weeks to prepare for possible violence in response to the report of the grand jury investigating Lewis' death.

Not until order and calm are restored can black and white residents of St. Petersburg return to the business of finding peaceful and effective ways of addressing their mutual concerns. Law-abiding black residents have legitimate concerns over the quality of law enforcement they receive, about the quality of city services available to them, about jobs and education and a general atmosphere of tension with predominantly white authorities.

Law-abiding white residents have legitimate concerns, too. They are waiting for members of the black community to step forward and publicly reject the violence being advocated and committed by a relative few. Such a stand requires great courage. The drug dealers, robbers and other criminals who already terrorize some St. Petersburg neighborhoods are using this crisis as an opportunity to erode law and order even further. Yet it is a stand that must be taken if the city is to survive without permanent scars.

St. Petersburg already has suffered grievously. This is the sort of crisis that can destroy a community, emotionally as well as physically. St. Petersburg does not deserve for that to happen. These acts of self-destruction must end now, while there is still time. For that to happen, black and white residents must come forward in an atmosphere of tolerance and trust to assert that they will not allow criminality and racism to destroy the community they share.