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Should we hire police who collect and serve?

sandra thompson
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© St. Petersburg Times
published August 24, 2002

I live in a neighborhood that is considering private police protection -- at least the Sunset Park Area Homeowners Association is considering it and has mailed out questionnaires to everyone who lives here.

The association wants to know how much we'd be willing to pay to hire off-duty cops to patrol our streets. It would cost each homeowner anywhere from $21 a year to $127 more or less, calculating on the number of households paying money and the number of three-hour shifts for the cops. Unless half the residents want it, it's a no go. And while the specifics haven't been worked out, the hired cop would probably be given a cell phone and the number distributed to paying members.

Bayshore Beautiful, where I used to live, paid off-duty cops to stop speeders. Of course if the cop saw a crime being committed, well, he or she went ahead and dealt with it. Everyone benefited -- even people, pedestrians and motorists, who didn't live there.

Since I moved to Sunset Park I've felt totally safe and secure, but after reading about this private police thing I've felt scared, or at least more vigilant.

It's really annoying, because I know better. The neighborhood is about as safe as you can get, and here as well as in my previous neighborhood, the police have been great.

I called 911 a few months back. It was the middle of the night to me -- I think, 1 or 2 a.m. I won't even tell you the really stupid reason I had for believing there was someone downstairs. I wasn't scared, because for some reason whoever lived here before put a hefty dead bolt on the upstairs bedroom door. The 911 operator stayed on the line with me till the cops arrived. It didn't take long, a few minutes.

Two cruisers pulled up, four officers checked out the whole place, one joked about it being time for breakfast, reassured me I'd done the right thing to call and didn't try to make me feel like an idiot. I don't know what more I could want, really.

A couple of weeks ago, my doorbell rang at around 7 p.m. This is the first time in almost a year living here the doorbell has rung when I did not expect someone. I opened the door and called out "Hello," and by the time I could see through the locked gate all that was left of my visitor was a disappearing pant leg.

I called the police non-emergency dispatch number. All I wanted the cops to do was check out the neighbors' places, in case Mr. Pant Leg was trying doorbells to find an empty house to break into. The police came over and did that. It took a little while for them to get here, but this was absolutely no emergency and I'd already explained all I'd seen was a pant leg, so it's not like they could go look for someone matching my description.

They were really nice. No one said, "Look, lady, ringing a doorbell is not a crime. We've got real work to do!"

In both cases, I felt a little guilty about taking up the cops' time and tremendously grateful that I live in a safe neighborhood in a city that has responsive, friendly police.

Not everyone is so fortunate.

There is, of course, the argument that extra police service should not be for sale to the wealthy. I don't agree. The rich can buy lots of things poor people can't; I'm not saying it's fair. (For the record, I don't plan to contribute to the current proposal.)

A case could be made that as long as wealthier neighborhoods can pay to increase their police protection, they will not realize the extent of crime problems in our city's poorer neighborhoods.

Well, I don't think they realize that anyway.

As for the special cell phone number for contributors only, that seems a little unneighborly, doesn't it? Plus, it could backfire. Say your non-paying neighbor sees your car being vandalized, and the extra-duty cop is right around the corner. The neighbor won't be able to call.

-- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at City Life appears on Saturday.

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