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Residents polled on off-duty patrols

Surveys have gone out asking homeowners if they would be willing to pay extra to have an officer watch out for vandalism and other crime.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 2, 2002


Concerns about auto burglaries, vandalism and speeding have prompted the Sunset Park Area Homeowners Association to look into hiring off-duty police officers to patrol the neighborhood.

The association recently mailed notices to homeowners seeking their input about paying for extra protection. The cost: $21 to $127 a year per household, depending on participation and the number of shifts covered.

Neighborhood leaders say the program would enhance existing city police patrol and give residents greater peace of mind. The community near West Shore Boulevard enjoys low crime, but saw a rise in burglaries and vandalism in the past few months.

"We want to make sure our neighborhood stays safe," said Allen Craig, vice president of the association. "I think that by having an uniformed officer in the area it's a deterrent. It makes our neighbors feel safer."

Police say added enforcement helps keep criminals out of the community. Burglars often move to a different area if they routinely see officers.

"I wish every neighborhood had them," said Officer T.C. Thompson.

Until a few weeks ago, Thompson patrolled Sunset Park as a firehouse cop based at Station 14 on Church Street. He recommends off-duty officers because they stay in the neighborhood and don't get called to major crimes elsewhere.

Over time, they become familiar with the residents and their cars.

"The idea is to sit back and try to eyeball the people coming into the neighborhood," said Thompson, who now works on Davis Islands. "You start knowing who lives in the neighborhood and the people who don't."

Association leaders first considered hiring officers in April, long before the city reassigned 60 firehouse cops to regular patrol last month. Even though people pay taxes for police protection, many worried about slow response times.

"We're not a high priority because we don't see a lot of crime," said Craig, who lost two bicycles from his garage about a week ago.

Sunset Park wouldn't be the first South Tampa community to pay for off-duty officers. Nearby Beach Park added police last year after teenagers driving through the neighborhood shot out car windows.

"It's well worth it," said Margaret Vizzi, a longtime Beach Park homeowner. "For the price of less than a dollar a day, you can't beat it."

About half of the community's 1,400 homes pay $225 a year for the off-duty officers, who patrol for six hours a night.

Homeowners who paid for the service get an officer's cell phone number to call in case of an emergency. Non-participants have to dial 911 for a regular Tampa officer, resulting in longer response times.

The Sunset Park association will pursue the program only if at least half of its 1,400 households express interest. The notices mailed to residents included a survey to gauge support and solicit suggestions. Surveys are due Aug. 9.

Depending on the response, the association will form a committee to work out the details. Officials will discuss the issue at their next community meeting, set for 7 p.m. Sept. 17 at the Sunset Park Garden Club, 4624 Browning Ave.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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