A Letter to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker

This column originally appeared in the Gabber Newspaper.

Hard Candy

Dear St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker:

Last month you killed eight-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton.

You didn’t pull the trigger, but had the power to prevent her murder and others like them. Paris could still be alive if you had acted on the pleas of your residents but you chose instead to sit in the shadows and deny a problem in her neighborhood.

Gang-related gunshots killed a little girl whose only misfortune was living in Bartlett Park, that part of St. Petersburg you’ve steadfastly maintained doesn’t have a crime problem. It’s an area of the city where residents quickly learn the difference between gunshots and firecrackers, where anything not locked down gets stolen, and where everyone knows you can buy crack or pot. It’s an area of the city that you cannot possibly begin to fix without some admission of a problem from your office; an admission you have given neither the voters nor the officers who risk their lives in that neighborhood.

At Paris’ funeral her minister said that when she fell down righteousness stood up. He was wrong; righteousness is running scared and you’re leading the charge. If you weren’t you would walk Bartlett Park at night and see the environment where these children grow up. You would talk to the people who live in these crime-soaked neighborhoods and not rely on others to tell you how it is. You would have the courage to stand beside these residents — who would support you and your police officers if you only took one teeny tiny step toward righteousness and admitted it isn’t a great day in St. Petersburg if you live in Bartlett Park.

Your police force has some excellent officers. I know because I lived in Bartlett Park for three years and had many an occasion to call them. I knew it wasn’t a perfect neighborhood but curved archways, hardwood floors, pre-war construction and your Pollyanna speeches persuaded me that things really couldn’t be that bad.

When it became apparent that drug crimes and all their offspring, from petty theft to murder, had a tighter grip on my neighborhood than I initially believed, I trusted your well-worn line: “It’s another great day in St. Petersburg.” I believed you were sincere about changing things; I thought you would try and fix whatever problems the neighborhood had.

What I didn’t know was that you turned your back on your police officers and residents. I didn’t expect that when I interviewed you for an article two years ago you would deny a crime problem in midtown. I didn’t know you would flush an angry red and accuse me of spinning a story when I asked about crime in Bartlett Park. I have you on record that the people who took issue with the city’s approach to midtown represented a “not unhealthy conflict.” That’s where you stood two years ago outside the shiny new midtown Sweetbay. Where do you stand today? Don’t let your minions tell you where you stand; what do you believe in your heart?

Is the situation in midtown still “not unhealthy”? Is it “not unhealthy” that a little girl will never know the sweetness of a first kiss or the keening of a first heartbreak because you refused to answer the pleas of your residents? Is it “not unhealthy” that you failed to give a little girl a safe neighborhood to grow up in? It’s time to take the responsibility for what you wrought by placing public relations over the safety of St. Petersburg’s children.

Go talk to your police — not the chief, but your patrol. Ask them if they knew of gang activity in Bartlett Park. Then ask them why they couldn’t stop it. Odds are all 500 of your officers aren’t incompetent. Maybe they couldn’t stop it because they are grossly understaffed for crime of the magnitude seen in Bartlett Park and the rest of midtown. As I understand it, your police force is short roughly 50 officers. If you can find the money for traffic control every time the city hosts a bike race or arts festival why can’t you find the money for officers to keep gangs from killing little girls?

It’s time to stand up beside the neighborhood that had to bury a little girl with her stuffed bunny. You’re a parent; can you not feel their pain? Can you still coldly look the media in the face and tell us it’s another great day in St. Petersburg? If one estimate of how often a Bartlett Park murder takes place is right, someone else will die violently there by Halloween.

That little girl’s blood is on your hands. The young woman she could have been, the world she could have changed, the lives she could have touched — their absence from this world is your cross to bear long after you aren’t mayor anymore. I hope you think about Paris’ family in church this Sunday, missing their baby girl. The little girl who still could be alive if only you had the courage to say, “I think we have a crime problem in midtown” instead of “It’s another great day in St. Petersburg.”

And I hope on Monday morning you find a way to stand up.

Cathy Salustri

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.