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Gypsies outraged by deputy's column

(ran SS edition of Metro & State, ET edition of Tampa & State)

The deputy sparks an angry outcry after writing in two newspapers that Gypsies are lifelong thieves.

Emblazoned across the top of the newspaper column in bold capital letters is this warning: "GYPSY ACTIVITY _ BE SAFE, BE SMART."

Pinellas County sheriff's officials say the deputy who wrote the column for the Dunedin Highlander community newspaper was just trying to alert residents to scams pulled by traveling con artists.

But those of Gypsy descent call it racism and say the column, written by Deputy Kris Gilmore, is the equivalent of racial profiling.

Gilmore's piece describes Gypsies as having "an olive or dark complexion with dark hair." The deputy continues with, "They make a living stealing. . . . It is normal for them to steal and they feel there is nothing wrong with this. If they do get arrested, it is considered part of the job."

The column uses damaging stereotypes to describe Gypsies, say advocates who argue that the group is simply a misunderstood ethnic minority, not a band of thieves.

"It's just another example of anti-Gypsyism that's everywhere," said Ian Hancock, a linguistics professor at the University of Texas-Austin.

Hancock, a representative to the United Nations on behalf of Gypsies, is a descendent of Hungarian Gypsies. "We are a non-white, ethnic minority protected by . . . the 1968 Civil Rights Act, and this is clearly profiling," he said. Gilmore "needs to know she's being very offensive."

Webster's New World Dictionary defines Gypsies as a group of wandering people with dark skin and black hair found throughout the world and believed to have originated in India. However, modern Gypsies say not all of them are nomadic, and their features vary.

Gilmore, a community police officer in Palm Harbor, said she never intended to offend anyone. She referred further questions to public information officials for the Sheriff's Office. So did Sheriff Everett Rice, who said he had not read the column.

Spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said Gilmore could have been more sensitive and that the office plans to review any future columns, she said.

"Historically, maybe not correctly, in the law enforcement context . . . some of these individuals engage in criminal activity," Pasha said. "Perhaps there should be a more general approach to it _ calling them just itinerant con artists rather than Gypsies."

Gilmore has been writing a public safety column for several months for C&N Publications Inc., which publishes the Dunedin Highlander as well as six other community publications in North Pinellas County, said publisher Dan Bobel. The Dunedin paper has about 20,000 readers, Bobel said. Gilmore's December column on Gypsies also ran in the Countryside Cougar, which has 14,000 readers.

Bobel, who also holds a seat on the East Lake Fire Commission, said he did not read the column before it was printed and is troubled by its content.

"I don't think anyone should be singled out," he said. "If there is a problem with scam artists, it's anybody or everybody and not a specific group of people."

Bobel said he has received at least two letters from readers complaining about the column and will run them in upcoming issues of the Highlander and Cougar.

That's little consolation to George Kaslov, founder of the Lawyers Committee for Roma Rights and Recognition. People of Gypsy descent prefer to be called Roma or Romani people rather than Gypsies because of the negative connotation associated with the word.

Kaslov, a New Yorker whose grandfather and great-uncle helped form a Gypsy civil rights group in the 1920s, said his community has endured negative stereotyping for centuries.

"It's ingrained in children from an early age that Gypsies will rob, steal, take your chickens and take your children," said Kaslov. "There are always remarks in the newspaper, on the radio, on TV, but what you've got there sounds like really derogatory remarks. We can't let this stuff go on in the United States."

If the word Gypsy were replaced with a more recognized minority group in Gilmore's column, that group likely would protest the statements, Kaslov said. But Gypsies are less likely to complain because they do not want to risk retaliation from law enforcement, he said.

Some police agencies, Hancock said, have specific "Gypsy crime squads" who target the group. Pinellas County sheriff's officials say no such squad exists here. But the county's Consumer Affairs Office, which handles some complaints about scams, differentiates between crimes committed by groups of travelers and those committed by Gypsies.

Travelers, said Consumer Affairs Director Sheryl Lord, often operate home repair scams in which they charge large sums of money to do shoddy roof repairs or repave someone's driveway. Thieves identified as Gypsies tend to steal jewelry, gold, silver and other valuables without using the home repair ruse, she said.

The office rarely uses the term Gypsies, however, said Lord and Larry Krick, supervisor of the county's consumer affairs regulatory section unit.

" "Organized traveling criminals' is what we call them to avoid the connotation," Krick said.

The description of con artists as Gypsies with dark complexions comes from some of the complaints to the Sheriff's Office, Pasha said, but she added, "I think persons who engage in this type of activity can have many descriptions and do."

Said Hancock: "Of course we have criminals. So do black Americans. So do Irish Americans. So does everybody. I'm a professor. I'm a UN representative. This is an insult to me. That's like saying every Italian-American is a mafioso."