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Despite community outcry, Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper defends Bob Buckhorn

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Following the May 31 shooting death of 14-year-old Edward Harris, I wrote about Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s statement following the tragedy.

“These young people, if they want to end up a statistic, either incarcerated or dead, the choice is theirs,” Buckhorn told the Times.  “Either get out of the life and find good role models, or you end up in the street in a pool of blood at age 14. That’s the reality.”

The statement came across as cold and out of touch. He sounded like he was blaming the victim and I, to a chorus of mixed reviews, called Buckhorn out for it.

I noted all the good Buckhorn has done for the city, but suggested that’s not always enough when you look at the city’s poorest, most crime-laden communities.

I challenged Buckhorn to not only find ways to get kids and families out of this vicious cycle of poverty, but show them how to locate those opportunities.

Buckhorn responded, perhaps not directly because of that column, by announcing he’d be keeping some Tampa rec centers in poor neighborhoods open until midnight. On top of that, kids 13-19 could get a free rec card in order to participate in summer programs offered at the centers.

The idea is to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble. It’s a good step, but expanding recreation programs isn’t enough.

Buckhorn’s statement shows a blatant disconnect between the comparatively cushy world of the city’s middle class and the despondent residents in poor communities. Regardless of his intention, his words were hurtful to many who worry they could be the next victim or their child or brother or sister could be the next victim.

But he has yet to acknowledge he could have handled the immediate aftermath of a tragedy a whole lot better.

The only response it seems Buckhorn has given so far is in a column published in the Times Thursday by columnist Ernest Hooper.

“I don’t agree with those hyperbolic assessments of Bob Buckhorn, but in the four-plus years he has served as Tampa’s mayor, the critics have never been as vocal,” Hooper writes.

He said “friends and colleagues have asked, almost demanded,” that he call out Buckhorn for comments “they’ve deemed out of bounds.”

Hooper goes on to explain that, “on its face, the statement seemed to be an unfair indictment that lacked any degree of empathy. He continues, “the more we learned about Harris, the more it appeared he was an innocent and a possible victim of mistaken identity — not a teen who associated with the wrong crowd.”

But Hooper gets Buckhorn’s back noting that the mayor could explain.

Asked about the comment, Hooper writes that Buckhorn insisted he was speaking broadly about a rash of killings, one that includes four teens.

“I was talking about the need to intervene in the lives of these young men before they make bad choices,” Buckhorn told Hooper. “The whole problem is we have young men killing each other, taking the wrong path in life and getting seduced by the streets or the gangs.”

“But what I said had nothing to do with E.J.”

The point seems to have been missed. It doesn’t matter if Buckhorn was talking about Harris specifically or an epidemic in general. The fact of the matter is, his words show he just doesn’t understand.

Premises like, “find a role model” and “just get out” are so much easier said than done.

Not only has Buckhorn failed to acknowledge the weight of his words, he hasn’t condemned the city’s policy of issuing tickets to people for bicycle infractions.

When the Tampa Bay Times uncovered startling statistics showing Tampa Police were disproportionately citing bike riders in poor, minority communities and that those citations were causing often undue burden to residents, the mayor did nothing. He stood behind the policy.

When the Times issued an editorial and a map showing where bike tickets were most concentrated versus where the city’s 21 homicides this year have occurred, Buckhorn still did nothing.

He remains silent despite the fact that that map shows most of the homicides have occurred in places where bike tickets are most common, suggesting the policy isn’t reducing crime.

In communities where police need the most help from residents, the policy succeeds only in further alienating them. Police ask residents to cooperate in criminal investigations, but they fail to earn the trust of a community increasingly wary of law enforcement.

And instead of making sure those relationships are improved, instead of educating, instead of condemning, Buckhorn hides behind his allies at the Tampa Bay Times.

Shame on Buckhorn. But shame too on the Times for not holding him accountable.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email

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