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Carlton: A city, a gun, a teenager gone

He was a teenager about to begin whatever the rest of his life would be.

Next week's first day of school would have made 14-year-old Edward Harris IV — E.J., they called him — officially a high school freshman. Done would be the mornings his dad drove him to Greco Middle School, home of the Cubs. Tuesday, E.J. could have climbed aboard a big yellow school bus outside his modest home in Woodland Terrace and stepped off of it at Tampa's sprawling, storied Hillsborough High, the oldest high school in the city.

"He was very happy about being able to go there," his father, Edward Harris III, told me this week. "He would have played football as well as basketball. And probably run track."

He was playing basketball that hot late-spring afternoon, then talking with friends at the neighborhood park. The silver Infiniti drove past, and then again, faster. Shots blasted from the car. And he became a tragedy, a number to mark an alarming spike in gun violence: the fourth teenager murdered in Tampa this year and the 18th homicide. That number has since climbed to 23, compared with 15 by this time last year.

"We have too many young folks that are losing their lives," said Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick.

Turf wars between neighborhoods, it's been said. Gangs, maybe. Real answers have been frustratingly few. Tampa police have had little cooperation from people who know something about what happened to E.J.

"There were lots of people at the park at the time of the shooting, and they haven't stepped forward," police spokesman Steve Hegarty said this week. "We continue to investigate.

"In the meantime, school is starting back up," he said. "And E.J. won't be there."

No doubt the lack of answers has to do with the maddening no-snitch culture of many urban neighborhoods, with fear of retribution. Maybe it also has to do with the relationship between people in less affluent communities and officers who police them. A Tampa Bay Times investigation showed that eight out of 10 tickets for bicycling violations in Tampa had been given to black residents. The Times reported this week that police have since dramatically decreased their bicycle citations.

Cities across the country are being scrutinized for how black people are treated by police. The long, hot summer had public officials worried. In Tampa, they wisely opened parks and pools into the night and kids came by the thousands. Creative solutions beat arrests any day. And maybe even those endless days of sheeting, sideways summer rain helped. A cop once told me rain is the world's best police officer, because people stay inside instead of getting into trouble.

"Maybe it needs to keep on raining, then," Reddick said when I told him this.

He has been pushing for a panel of citizens to review police actions — an independent voice, he says, a chance to build trust. That's turning into a turf war over whether the mayor or the City Council has authority to do this. Expect fireworks before anything can actually happen.

E.J.'s father says he is glad they haven't taken down the memorial the kids set up at the park to remember his son. Nearly every day, someone lingers to look at it.

At Greco Middle School, principal Yinka Alege talked about the eighth-grade prom in the school cafeteria and E.J. in a black tux and red vest, calling out, "Hey, Mr. Alege, let's take a picture." He remembers E.J. dancing. Alege held the picture of them as we spoke. It was taken less than two weeks before he was killed, before he could go on to whatever was supposed to be next. "It was just a matter of having the chance to start," he said.

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@tampabay.com.

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