When beginning his latest crime update for the St. Petersburg City Council, Mike Kovacsev, Assistant Chief of the St. Pete Police Department, started with the good news first – overall crime is down 11% in the city this year and down 30% over the last five years.
However, that comes as little consolation when there were 21 homicides in the city over the first five months of the year.
“As you know I was in homicide for a very long time throughout my career,” said Kovacsev. “We used to average between 20 and 25 throughout the years, 21 through June is just unacceptable.”
Of those 21, 17 have been closed and 18 have been gun-related. Kovacsev said that 150 guns have been stolen in the city this year, with 111 of those taken out of vehicles. He said that he does not have number for how many of those vehicles were left unlocked, but that it is “the vast majority.”
Kovacsev said that as the city reopens, police have had more challenges with crowds gathering downtown and along the 16th Street corridor during the weekends, with the latest homicide also occurring on the 16th Street corridor. He said that the more that crowds gather the more opportunities arise for arguments to happen and then spiral out of control.
City council had a number of questions and suggestions regarding mitigation factors, but perhaps none thought outside of the box as much as Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders. She took the opportunity to announce a new “Pre-school Officers Program.”
Community leaders and officers will be teaming up to reach the youngest members of the city, before there is a chance for outside influences to negatively impact them. The idea is to form a productive relationship between children as young as 2 or 3 years old and police officers, so that “every time they see that uniform – every time they see people as handsome as Chief K – it’s not a bad thing,” said Figgs-Sanders.
Once that bond is formed the hope is that they can then move on to formalizing a relationship with their parents.
“It has to be systematic; it has to intentional, and it has to be a community effort.”
Councilmember Brandi Gabbard asked if there was a heat map to show what districts of the city are being affected the most by the vehicle break-ins. Kovacsev said that while such a map does not currently exist, he will consult with Chief Holloway to see if that is a possibility.
Gabbard also inquired if there is a penalty for gunowners who do not properly store their weapons, resulting in them subsequently being stolen. Kovacsev said that has been debated for a number of years, but that law enforcement officials are worried that would deter people from ever reporting when a gun is stolen in the first place.
“Obviously, we know there is a lot more going on here than just guns being stolen,” said Gabbard. “But at the same time, the whole irresponsible gun ownership piece of it is something I think we as a city really need to get a handle on with our residents, which is why I asked for that information district specific.”
Councilmember Darden Rice said that public service announcements on the dangers of leaving vehicles unlocked were in order, while Councilmember Gina Driscoll suggested adding crosswalks, better lighting, and getting code enforcement involved to address problem areas such as 16th Street South could be part of the solution.
Kovacsev said that in response to earlier homicides in the area, the response was to shut things down for a while, but officers have now scaled that back in the name of balance. They want to encourage community gatherings and community involvement, he explained, not to mention respect the legitimate businesses that also operate in the neighborhood.
“We don’t want to be seen as heavy-handed,” said Kovacsev. “We don’t want to shut things down. We would just like community involvement on what the best answer is to address that.”
Driscoll added she appreciates the law enforcement approach of focusing on ways to better manage the area and find that balance between keeping it enjoyable and safe.
Councilmember Lisa Wheeler-Bowman echoed her colleagues in thanking Kovacsev for the constant updates on what occurres over the weekends, not just in the city but also along 16th Street.
Kovacsev said that homicides tend to be the hardest crime to prevent, which is why he wanted to start the update with the fact that overall crime is down. He also added that the numbers are somewhat artificially inflated, as one person killed four of the 21 victims, and another suspect killed two. Most of all, he stressed the need for community engagement, as people willing to come forward and talk to police are often hard to find.