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Neighbors cataloging drug deal locations

Hotspot cards are being used to tell police where drugs are being sold and where to find suspected dealers.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003

To help rid West Tampa of drug dealers, Esther Ross is putting her faith in a complaint card.

Where it said "illegal drug activity," she wrote "Ray Park."

Where it said "date(s)", she wrote "every day."

And where it said "other details," she wrote "young males between the ages of 15-20."

Then she gave it to Tampa Police Department officials, who promise to investigate, report back in a month and follow up every few months.

Ross, a minister at Trinity Christian Methodist Episcopal, has been battling drug dealers long enough to know the cards, called Hotspot cards, won't do much by themselves. But she's willing to try any tool that might lessen the plague of crack cocaine.

"It's going to take us doing this constantly, constantly, constantly," she said.

The cards are the brainchild of the Hillsborough Organization for Progress & Equality, better known as HOPE, a coalition of about 20 churches that focuses on crime prevention and neighborhood improvement.

HOPE began using the cards 10 years ago, but recently resurrected the program. The idea is to allow people to report suspicious activity but remain anonymous.

The police department has an anti-drug hotline, but if people don't leave their names, authorities can't call them back with a progress report, said Capt. Marion Lewis, commander of the drug-fighting Quad Squad.

With the cards, officers can report back to HOPE, which can inform members.

HOPE distributed cards to member congregations two weeks ago. Last week, more than 30 were turned over to police at a meeting in the Belmont/Jackson Heights neighborhood.

Most of the reported sites are in East Tampa, but a sprinkling can be found in West Tampa, Ybor City and other south side neighborhoods.

Police are aware of most of the sites, but not all of them. The cards offer plenty of details.

"White Buick LeSabre w. temporary tag," said one, referring to a dealer's vehicle at a house in Belmont/Jackson Heights. "Old man allows this at his house," said another, referring to a suspected drug den in the same neighborhood.

One HOPE member listed a suspect's name, height, weight and warrant number -- and pointed out he's sporting a goatee.

One wrote that a suspected dealer hides in an attic.

Yet another offered a solution -- and a plea.

"Need to send drug offenders to Gadsden County to work on state farm," the person wrote. "Please help the community to get cleaned up. We have prayed, we have begged."

Ross, in West Tampa, has done more than pray.

Ray Park is right across the street from her church on Howard Avenue. Sometimes, when she sees dealers working the playground, she goes over for a chat.

She tells the young men they're bringing down the neighborhood and invites them to church. They decline.

"They just see a fast dollar," Ross said.

So for now, in between chats, she'll keep filling out cards.

-- To obtain a Hotspot card, call HOPE at 221-4673. Cards can be mailed to residents.

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