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Shadow warrior

As one of Tampa's finest, this enviro-cop thinks crime prevention is possible through environmental design.

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 13, 2002

Five years ago, Tampa police officer David Bjelke worked undercover prostitution stings. He rode around in beat-up cars and looked for the hookers who lingered beneath Nebraska Avenue street lights.

These days, he just looks for the street lights.

He sees dim alleys and overgrown bushes, and he knows where criminals hide.

Back downtown, his office is thick with rolled-up housing plans and packets of zoning regulations. He uses the phrase "new urbanism" in casual conversation.

Such is the state of law enforcement in 2002.

Bjelke is an enviro-cop, an emissary from a program called Crime Prevention through Environmental Design.

"If we can build this right, I don't have to put people in jail," said Bjelke, smoothing out a giant blueprint.

Bjelke operates under a policing philosophy that has little to do with putting people behind bars. He is one of three environmental design officers at the Tampa Police Department. His team reviews new development plans, sizes up businesses and works with the city planning and zoning offices to make neighborhoods safer.

They get help from companies such as Tampa Electric Co., now on the verge of brightening 1,300 streetlights citywide. If history is a predictor, brighter bulbs -- focused on sidewalks instead of streets -- will increase visibility and reduce crime.

Environmental design is part psychology, part landscaping and part architecture.

The building blocks: Speed bumps in residential neighborhoods to slow cars. Fewer signs on strip malls to draw eyes inside the stores. Large flowerpots to fence off private spaces. Thorny shrubs to discourage ambushes.

The principles have seeped into plans for the city greenways network and the restoration of west Tampa.

Recently, Bjelke advised the developer of a senior citizen complex to move the parking lot entrance to a street with less crime, brighten the lights and cut the shrubs to knee-level.

That way, people notice the criminals, said Tampa Officer Art Hushen, the city's first enviro-cop.

"It's policing through psychology," he said. "We look at the mind of the normal person and the mind of the offender."

Communities that have tried the system say it works. In one Toronto suburb, police and community leaders planted a garden at a lot once known for garbage and crime. Calls for police service dropped 30 percent in the neighborhood in the first year. Other cities -- Mesa, Ariz.; Bridgeport, Conn.; Dayton, Ohio -- have had similar success.

"It's common sense," said Timothy Crowe, a Louisville, Ky., criminologist. "We just try to focus on natural strategies."

Police in St. Petersburg, Jacksonville and Sarasota have learned the strategies, but few forces actively review building plans like Tampa does.

Tampa has three full-time environmental police officers: Bjelke, Hushen and Doug Pasley. The agency is considering a fourth.

"It's so radical, it's so different," said Hushen. "We can make a change and be a part of the process."

The officers support a proposed city regulation which would require new buildings to comply.

Their guidance is free.

"I would love to see more people use it," said Cathy Byrd, a developer, contractor and commissioner for Tampa's Historic Preservation Commission.

"It didn't cost me a dime, and it's worth a million bucks."

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