St. Pete aims to prevent hate crimes with SAFE PLACE decals

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) – It’s a powerful message the city of St. Petersburg wants everyone to know. Hate crimes will not be tolerated in the community.

On Thursday morning, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and the St. Petersburg Police Department launched a new initiative called SAFE PLACE.

The goal is to have as many local business owners as possible to display rainbow decals on the front door or windows of their buildings.

Those decals will let victims of hate crimes know that employees at that business will call the police to help them, if they come inside and ask for assistance.

Hatem Jaber of the Islamic Society of St. Petersburg will never forget the experience he and his worshippers had when they received a disturbing voicemail from 2015.

“It was very scary, you know?” said Jaber, reflecting on the message.

A man later identified as Martin Alan Schnitzler, 43, of Pinellas County left a message, saying in part that he would, “”Firebomb you, shoot whoever’s there on sight in the head. I don’t care if they’re (expletive) 2-years-old or 100.”

Almost two years later, Jaber says the fear of being a victim of a hate crime always goes through his head.

Jaber’s story is one of the many reasons St. Petersburg police created this program, giving hate crime victims a place to stay.  The program designates businesses as places where hate crime victims can go for shelter.   If you need help and go into a participating store with a Safe Place sign, an employee should immediately call 911.

When asked if the program is something the St. Petersburg community needs, Lt Markus Hughes, the police department’s LGBTQ liaison told us, “I equated it to like wearing a bullet proof vest.  It’s something that you hope you never have to have or have to use.”

During the last few years, the city’s LGBTQ community has skyrocketed with Democratic Mayor Rick Kriseman a big supporter of gay rights.

When asked what he would say to people who said he was promoting an agenda, he quickly responded, “If promoting safety, if promoting tolerance, if promoting diversity, then yes, I’m promoting that.”

“Individuals who come into our stores feel it is a safe space,” said communications directors Imira Canady.

Meantime, back at the Islamic Society of Saint Petersburg, Jaber told us the program, “gives us some kind of comfort to know that the city cares enough to have an initiative that protects all of its citizens.”

The number of hate crimes in St. Petersburg is down and police want to keep it that way.

The last crime took place last year when someone spray-painted a swastika and a gay slur on the sidewalk of Christ the King church on 5th Avenue North.

Even with a small number of crimes, cops are quick to point out that there could be a lot more cases, many of which go unreported.

The Safe Place concept was originally designed by the Seattle Police Department to help members of the LGBTQ Community, but now includes victims of all hate crimes.

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