By Tamara Lush
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Police have sealed off dozens of blocks in St. Petersburg, Fla., to search for the man who shot and killed a police officer, as this Gulf Coast city mourns the third officer to be gunned down in the line of duty in less than a month.
Officer David Crawford, a 25-year veteran of the force, was shot around 10:30 p.m. Monday as he was investigating a report of a suspicious person. The 46-year-old Crawford was married and had an adult daughter.
News of his death sent the already-shaken department into shock again. In January, two officers were shot and killed while serving a warrant.
"This city has been through hell," Mayor Bill Foster said at an early morning news conference Tuesday. "Our hearts are broken."
Officers gathered at Bayfront Medical Center and saluted as a white van carried Crawford's body out of the hospital.
"It hurts," Police Chief Chuck Harmon said at an early morning news conference outside the hospital. "It stings. This killer has taken someone very precious to us, a member of our family."
Harmon said he could see the look of shock on the faces of his officers.
"As I saw their faces tonight it was ... not again," Harmon said.
St. Petersburg police said the shooting happened after two officers were called to a neighborhood just south of Tropicana Field — where the Tampa Bay Rays play baseball — to investigate a report of person who may have been a prowler.
Officer Crawford spotted the suspect and got out of his vehicle to approach him. At 10:37 p.m., another officer, Donald J. Ziglar, reported an exchange of gunfire and told dispatchers an officer was down.
Ziglar found Crawford lying on the pavement near his cruiser, police said. He had been shot multiple times at close range.
"Blood, it was everywhere," said Michael Poncedeleon, a resident who saw the shooting and spoke to TV station Bay News 9.
"Everybody was so emotional, all the cops were screaming," he said.
Crawford, a 25-year-veteran, was pronounced dead at the hospital. He was 46.
By Tuesday morning, SWAT teams, a helicopter and canines were being used in the search for the gunman. Authorities said there was no evidence that the suspect was injured during the exchange of gunfire and an intense manhunt was ongoing.
Pinellas County Schools announced that a middle school and two elementary schools near the scene would be closed Tuesday and students were being notified to attend nearby schools.
Officers were surprised that the suspect was able to remain undetected for more than 12 hours; dozens of law enforcement fanned out on the streets immediately after the shooting happened.
The Tampa Bay area has had six officers shot to death in the line of duty in the last two years.
Monday's shooting happened about four miles from where two officers were gunned down in January. Officers Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz and Thomas Baitinger were killed as they helped serve a warrant on a man with a long criminal history.
Lorie Fridell, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said tragedies such as this reinforce the resolve of the officers on the force.
"I don't think that there are many officers that are rethinking their careers," said Fridell. "They understand the danger. If anything, tragedies like this strengthen their commitment, particularly the commitment they have for fellow officers.
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"I expect that particularly right now, officers are ever vigilant, maybe even increasingly vigilant, in the Tampa-St. Pete area as a result of these tragedies."