Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Police operation leaves city stained:

After St. Petersburg police cut down the tents of homeless people camped beneath an overpass, the reaction was swift and predictable. Replays of the video on local television and the Web site YouTube brought a flood of harsh criticism for the city's heavy-handed tactics. Contrary to Mayor Rick Baker's favorite opening line, it wasn't a great day in the city of St. Petersburg.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon, who approved the raid, stated the obvious: "I think the perception was not good of how and what we did." No kidding. So why couldn't Harmon have foreseen that outcome? Now, people worldwide will view St. Petersburg as a heartless place where police destroy the property of those who have little to begin with. Good luck on reversing that image anytime soon.

Days earlier, Baker had handled the dismantling of a larger tent city nearby with more finesse. County and private social service agencies were brought in to offer the campers help in the form of rent vouchers, bus tickets home or shelter space. Those who refused or failed to get such help formed a new tent city.

Homeless-rights activists behind both tent cities undoubtedly hoped to provoke a police overreaction. Not only were video cameras at the ready, but the tents were quickly replaced. More homeless people are likely to join the cause, which has now taken on the dimensions of a political struggle. People will differ on whether such tactics serve the best interests of the homeless, but clearly there is an unmet need in St. Petersburg despite efforts by the city and charitable groups.

Several groups are working to secure more shelter space for the homeless so that it won't be necessary for them to pitch tents or sleep in the open. That process will take time. Meanwhile, Baker and Harmon need to turn the focus back to providing services instead of slashing tents.

A St. Petersburg Times Editorial

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