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Concerns on rise as drug arrests fall

Though St. Petersburg police officials say supplies have been cut, others blame personnel cuts and low morale.

By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- Seventy residents, a racially diverse group wearing bright yellow T-shirts and white hard hats, stood at the darkened corner on 15th Avenue S last week and chanted through bullhorns.

"Up with hope! Down with dope!" they repeated. "If you keep selling crack, we will be back!"

A group of young black men who gathered across the street seemed unfazed. They stepped toward the demonstrators attending the city-led protest and hollered back. One whipped out a bundle of $20 bills and fanned it like a deck of cards.

"Ain't no hope," another yelled. "Get you some dope!"

For 30 minutes, the two sides traded chants and barbs under the dingy shine of bulletproof street lights.

The young men on the corner were brazen and brash, and maybe with good reason, said some residents who attended last week's march against drugs at 15th Avenue S in the 13th Street Heights neighborhood.

Even as the city's violent crimes increase and complaints about open-air drug markets get louder, drug arrests in St. Petersburg dropped 19 percent last year, the second consecutive citywide decline.

Arrests by the street narcotics team fell the most, by 42 percent. The 13-member team made 295 arrests in all of 2001, an average of just five or six a week.

Meanwhile, police wrote 7,445 more traffic tickets last year than the year before.

Police administrators downplay the drop in drug arrests, saying the department is executing more search warrants at drug houses and cutting the supply to the street.

Still, Chief Chuck Harmon acknowledged last week that the department may need to refocus its drug enforcement efforts.

"Down the road," he said, "maybe the department needs to do a better job of balancing those interests."

But some police officers and residents blame the drop in drug arrests on low morale, staffing shortages and a fear of petty discipline from an unsupportive administration.

"They're not going to do their jobs when you have to fight two people -- not only the bad guy but the administration," said Mark Douglas, a former officer who quit to work for the Pinellas Sheriff's Office.

Criminologists judge a city's drug-fighting success by its crime rate. Last year, while drug arrests declined 19 percent in St. Petersburg, violent crimes, including homicides, sex crimes, robberies and aggravated assaults, increased 8.6 percent.

So far this year, violent crime is up 21 percent.

"I would say if the homicides are up and violent crimes are up, that would put the whole issue of drugs high on my radar screen," said Eli Silverman, a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Last year, St. Petersburg made 1,924 arrests for drug violations -- 442 fewer arrests than in 2000.

Consider:

More than 400 patrol officers made 1,284 arrests on drug violations last year, 12 percent fewer than the previous year.

The 13 members of the street narcotics squad made 295 drug arrests, a 42 percent decrease from the previous year.

The District 1 street unit, which works in Midtown, made just 52 drug arrests last year. That's an average of one arrest per week and a 36 percent drop from the previous year.

The undercover vice and narcotics detectives, who investigate mid- to high-level dealers, arrested 20 percent fewer people than the year before.

Council member Bill Foster said he is alarmed by the numbers.

"There are only two people in the city who can turn those numbers around, and that's the mayor and the chief of police," Foster said.

Mayor Rick Baker said drug-fighting is a city priority. He asked police to track the type and quantity of drugs seized on search warrants to make sure warrants are hurting the street supply.

Harmon said he is planning a more coordinated enforcement effort, including a strategy that involves picking two drug hot spots in each police district and focusing on them.

Tampa police also arrested fewer people on drug charges in 1999 and 2000. But the sheriff's offices in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties show steady increases in drug arrest numbers.

The latest decline in St. Petersburg's drug arrests began under former police Chief Goliath Davis III.

Under Davis, the Police Department emphasized investigations of speeding, traffic accidents and prostitution. City statistics show that officers wrote 7,445 more traffic tickets, responded to 3,158 more vehicle accidents and arrested 55 more prostitutes last year, compared with 2000.

"That's where the push has been," said Karl Lounge, sergeant of the District 1 narcotics unit.

Davis, who retired in October, said residents wanted the police to spend more time on traffic-related problems and prostitution.

"Arrests may have gone down because there were fewer people to arrest," said Davis, now deputy mayor of Midtown economic development. "It wasn't because we stopped our efforts."

Those who treat drug abusers haven't seen their business drop, and they doubt that drug use is down.

"Not at all," said Nancy Hamilton, chief operating officer for Operation PAR, the county's largest treatment facility. "In fact, what we're seeing is an earlier onset of use."

Hamilton said she would be concerned with the drop in drug arrests only if the department "decided to look the other way."

"Arrests are a great first consequence for drug abuse," she said, "and sometimes it is the only thing that gets somebody an assessment and the treatment that they need."

Each year since 1998, the Police Department has searched more houses for drugs, a trend Harmon cites to explain the drop in drug arrests.

When police hit crack houses, street dealers are cut off, he said.

Last year, the undercover vice and narcotics unit served 72 search warrants for drugs -- two more than in 2000. Not every search is a gold mine. Crack cocaine was seized in 45 of the searches, but only in 14 of those cases did officers find enough crack to warrant trafficking charges against the occupants.

All told last year, police seized 80 guns; two pounds of cocaine worth about $64,000; 3.4 pounds of crack worth about $108,375 and 321/2 pounds of marijuana worth $32,500 from drug houses, according to police records.

"I would say the guys were very busy," said John Gardner, major of the vice and narcotics squad.

Even after a warrant is executed, though, the drugs can return to the same spot.

Van Wofford lives next door to a drug house just three blocks north of police headquarters.

Two years in a row, police searched 240 13th St. N, the eyesore next door to Wofford's well-kept home. Twice, police seized marijuana and crack.

"I've called Jeb Bush," said Wofford, 56. "Our whole neighborhood is completely surrounded in drugs."

Officers say it takes more officers to combat drug dealers, and that they don't have enough of them. The street narcotics team, which used to have 21 members until a federal grant ended in 1997, is now down to no more than 13 members.

"Morale is as low as I've ever seen it," said Lounge, a 12-year employee and the sergeant of the District 1 street narcotics unit.

Since 1999, calls for police service have increased steadily each year. The city had 730,945 calls last year -- 30 percent more than in 1999.

Yet the city has 30 fewer officers.

"If you've got a combination of manpower being down and increased calls for service, you limit the ability of officers to be proactive," said J.C. Brock, director of the Southeastern Public Safety Institute, the police academy in St. Petersburg.

Harmon said he wants officers to aggressively pursue illegal drug activity.

"I'm encouraging them to assertively go out and work drugs," the police chief said.

-- Connie Humburg, Times computer assisted reporting specialist, contributed to this report. Leanora Minai can be reached at minai@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8406.

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