May 24, 2008. St. Petersburg Times.
Pastor William Sherman has seen the impact of crime around Mount Carmel Baptist Church in the North Greenwood neighborhood.
“For me, personally, it hit home,” Sherman told about 70 people gathered at St. Cecelia Catholic Church on Thursday evening.
“Next door to the church was a crack house,” Sherman said.
Sherman spoke during a meeting of church leaders and parishioners with Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein.
They asked him to investigate drug dealing and violence at 34 addresses that members of local churches have identified as “hot spots,” mostly in North Greenwood.
Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, is a county-wide group of 32 racially diverse churches from various denominations.
Since its creation in 2004, FAST has invited public officials to several summits, which the group calls “actions,” to ask them to address issues such as affordable housing and prekindergarten services.
In April, FAST members held a summit at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks attended by 2,400 people. They asked public officials to address crime in several neighborhoods around the county.
But some officials, including Klein, disagree with the group’s format for the meetings and have refused to attend.
At the meetings, officials such as mayors, county commissioners and police chiefs are asked to stand in front of the crowd.
The officials are told to answer “yes” or “no” to questions asking whether they will comply with the churches’ requests.
The crowd is instructed to applaud loudly if the answer is “yes.” They are told to sit silently and look disappointed if the answer is “no.”
Neither Klein nor St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon attended last month’s meeting, saying they did not want to give yes-or-no answers to complex crime issues.
The churches say they hold meetings with officials days before a summit, and the officials know the questions in advance.
Thursday’s meeting with Klein at St. Cecelia involved a smaller group of churches. Sitting around a table, the pastors asked Klein six questions.
Most prominently, the pastors asked Klein whether he would investigate the hot spots within 10 days and make sure that no racial profiling or harassment of innocent people would occur.
The group also asked Klein:
-For a report on the hot spots investigation within 15 days and a meeting in person in 30 days.
-To investigate complaints against officers filed anonymously or by a third party.
-For a monthly report on traffic stops that includes the ethnicities of the drivers pulled over, among other things.
After explaining, among other things, privacy laws and the length of time it takes to investigate complaints, Klein mostly said yes to five requests.
But the chief qualified his answers and asked the pastors some questions of his own.
For one thing, the department has a written policy against racial profiling, Klein told the pastors.
He also told them to expect a heavier police presence in the East Gateway part of the city, where many Hispanics live.
The reason: There have recently been 29 incidents in which African-American men attacked, robbed and held at knife-point Hispanic men, he said.
“We are trying to protect the Hispanic population,” Klein said.
“I want to make it very clear to everybody here. We will do our duty,” Klein said. “We will do it responsibly. You will see more officers, not less.”
The “no” answer Klein gave was to the churches’ request that he attend their cornerstone “Nehemiah Action” in 2009. Klein didn’t attend this year’s similar meeting.
Klein reiterated that he doesn’t think the format is conducive to solutions.
He pointed to a previous meeting he held with some of the pastors in February at the police station. Klein reminded the pastors that they had asked for information that his staff prepared.
But when he answered “no” to the pastors’ first question at that meeting, Klein said, they got up and walked out.
“In my opinion, that is not very productive,” Klein said. “You need to look in the mirror. How are you approaching public officials?”
The pastors said they would try to change his mind.
“You said no, but you left open for us to work with you,” said Joe Magri, a St. Cecelia parishioner. “We appreciate it very much.”