A special Sheriff's Office unit targets problem areas instead of waiting around for calls for help.
By JOSH ZIMMER
Published February 13, 2004
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Hillsborough County Sheriff's Deputy Chad Michael, second from left, searches a suspect, while Deputy Chris Tuminella, left, heads up the road. At right, Deputy Andrea Eagon stands by a car doing a background check. Michael and Tuminella, part of the sheriff's Razor Detachment, were assisting deputies from the District 1 selective enforcement squad during a night shift in late January.
UNIVERSITY NORTH - In a discreet spot off 142nd Avenue, undercover Hillsborough sheriff's deputies pose as busy drug dealers. A parade of buyers walks down the poorly lit street looking for crack.
Clutching two walkie-talkies, Sgt. Leonard Diaz watches from an unmarked vehicle. The second that officers indicate another sale, he calls in marked cars for quick arrests.
But sometimes just being near the wrong place lands people in trouble.
Ruth Mendez and her friends stand in front of a parking lot near the undercover dealers, illuminated by an overhead streetlight. Diaz, a 24-year police veteran, wonders why they're there, and races to the scene.
He and another officer begin clutching at jackets and pants for any signs of drugs. Pat-downs are standard procedure for this special enforcement unit, even when people aren't obviously breaking the law. Suspicion is a strong motivator, and the aggressive contact often yields results in terms of drug and other arrests.
Mendez says they were looking for a cat. This seems like harassment to her.
"I don't mind seeing police," she says angrily. But "you can't walk down the street."
However, one of her friends has an outstanding arrest warrant and is taken away in handcuffs.
Marlene Heeren approaches a chain-link fence across the street, cigarette in hand. She lives in a small apartment with her daughter, ex-husband and her four grandchildren. Diaz explains the undercover operation. Heeren tells him drug activity is down.
That's music to Diaz' ears.
"It was to the point where we wouldn't even let the kids out," Heeren says.
The selective enforcement squad is a separate unit within the Sheriff's Office District 1 station off 20th Street. All four of the sheriff's districts have them. They approach law enforcement differently.
Instead of responding to calls, the squads target problem areas, taking the action to the criminals. It's called saturation policing. In District 1, where the Sheriff's Office works the poorest urban area in Hillsborough, the squad largely focuses on drugs and trespassing.
Working both undercover and in uniform, squad members rely heavily on instinct, frequently stopping people for rapid-fire questioning and pat-downs. It's not uncommon for people to be handcuffed while squad members check for out-of-state warrants.
Diaz says the tactics are necessary, effective and, above all, legal. Drug seizuresare way up since he took over the squad a year ago, he says.
But the frustration of Mendez, the pedestrian who was stopped with her friends, shows how outraged some people feel about those methods. Some call them heavy-handed and unfair to innocent passersby.
Diaz scoffs at the criticism, saying most law-abiding citizens welcome the squad's presence. The streets are safer, he says. The criminals are off-balance.
The battle is "never ending," he said while riding west on 142nd Avenue just before dark. "In this area you see the children playing out on the streets and that makes you feel good. We've got them (criminals) hiding."
* * *
Diaz is a hard-nosed former detective with a relaxed yet commanding demeanor. Experienced in undercover police work, he's helped break major drug operations throughout the county. But he also has worked lower-level street sales in University North.
"When crack was first introduced . . . people came out here and just showed you handfuls," he said. Dealers "used to argue with each other to sell you the largest rock."
This area, just west of the University of South Florida, has known poverty for decades, made worse by the displacement of public housing residents in central Tampa. It's known as "Suitcase City" because of turnover at the cheap apartment complexes. It has, at times, shown the highest crime rates in unincorporated Hillsborough County.
Bounded by Interstate 275, Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and Bearss and Fowler avenues, the area is undergoing a slow but steady revitalization assisted by tens of millions of dollars in state and federal aid. Providing a safer, cleaner environment for people is one of the main goals.
That makes the selective enforcement squad part of a much larger picture.
* * *
Edward Barker, married with two children, owns one of the rare single-family homes in the heart of University North. It's a well-maintained lot at the corner of 19th Street and 139th Avenue.
The neighborhood is on the upswing. Years ago, Barker could look out his window and see open prostitution across the street. But he remains vigilant. According to Diaz, Barker offered to let the squad use his shed for lookouts and even cut down a tree for better surveillance.
Barker, who greets Diaz with a smile, stays in close touch with deputies.
"It's 100 percent better than it was," Barker said. "It still ain't perfect . . . We've been fighting this s-- a long time, and we don't want it coming back."
In recent months, Diaz has developed closer working relationships with several property managers. He seeks them out and vice versa.
They tell him about illegal activity and problem tenants. In return, Diaz tells them about tenants who've been arrested. Given that information, property managers can evict people. Applying pressure at the complexes is crucial because Diaz believes the squad has chased many drug dealers off the street and into the apartments, where they continue to sell.
Diaz also has permission from some property managers to run undercover operations at their sites, and to enforce "no loitering" rules. Hanging out in parking lots or other spots outside common areas is a red flag. Experience tells Diaz that drug transactions may be taking place.
During a recent street sweep in an unmarked vehicle, Diaz gets a call from a patrol deputy about a group of young men in the Colonial Parc Apartments parking lot. Diaz heads in that direction, knowing he has a free hand from management to check people out.
Shows of force play heavily into saturation policing. Diaz drives in at a fast clip and a half-dozen squad members hop out like soldiers from a battle helicopter. Speed gives them an advantage.
The patch of asphalt becomes a swirl of activity, with no love lost between the two sides. Some of the young men, all of them black, clearly resent the questioning, the pat-downs and, in at least one case, having to take their shoes off.
The men essentially have to prove their innocence.
"We know the players," said Diaz, pointing to a tall guy the squad members arrested before on drug charges. "If we let them, they will sell."
Some of the men receive trespass warnings. A second warning will get them arrested, Diaz informs them.
Diaz zeroes in on one man, demanding to know why he's there. The man says he's visiting his girlfriend. Diaz asks for his girlfriend's cell phone number. He wants to call it to see if he's being told the truth. Diaz does that a lot. The boyfriend says he doesn't have the number.
The boyfriend is off the hook for now, though he could be evicted if he's living at Colonial Parc but his name isn't on the lease, Diaz warns. That's a benefit of knowing the managers.
"They're really helping us fight crime," property manager Diane Lee said.
The operation is over. Diaz is ready to move on.
"Can I get my beer and go?" the boyfriend coldly asks.
Diaz doesn't stop him.
* * *
Worthing Square apartments off 22nd Street suffered a rash of burglaries around Christmas. The property management, having worked closely with Diaz since fall, asked Diaz for extra attention.
The unit became a more frequent sight at the 552-unit complex. Many residents know squad members as the "Green Team" for the green jumpsuits they wear. It's not always a term of affection.
The squad members, a mix of white, black and Latin officers, are mostly under 30, chosen for their teamwork and aggressiveness on the street. At night, they maneuver through the maze of apartment buildings like pack hunters, whispering clues and fanning out systematically for hiding spots that give them the advantage of surprise. They practically pounce on their targets.
Attracting their attention can be as simple as grabbing a smoke outside or wearing baggy clothing.
The craftiness buyers and dealers show in hiding their drugs elicits grudging admiration. Squad members say some people layer pieces of cloth to form an extra pocket inside their pants leg. Another trick is to use the hard flap covering the pants zipper. Yet another spot is the off-center part of the underwear pouch.
Pat-downs are an art, they say half-jokingly.
For some residents, the green team isn't funny at all.
Jibri Newton said he doesn't sell drugs, but admits his friends can be troublemakers. He's been stopped and patted down, he said.
"It makes me not want to come outside," he said. "You keep your eyes out for the green team."
The squad generates mixed feelings among other residents. While acknowledging the unit does good work in fighting drugs, they resent the treatment that squad members mete out.
"They catch people," said Regina Johnson, 15. But, "They're too aggressive."
University of Florida criminology professor Fred Shenkman said the public's urge to feel safe tends to overwhelm civil liberties issues. Harassment is a matter of perspective. That often gives law enforcement the upper hand.
"It takes almost nothing for police to do a field interrogation," he said, even though the easy pretexts can amount to "borderline infringement on people's rights."
The harsh reality is that people living in poor communities, often minorities, frequently face the toughest kind of law enforcement, when residents in safer neighborhoods are let off the hook, he said. The same techniques used in Worthing Square could theoretically nab plenty of inebriated country clubbers in anti-drunk driving sweeps, or university students in drug searches.
"I am always concerned about the selective enforcement of the laws," Shenkman said. But "Let's face it, making people feel safer is one of the goals of law enforcement. If people feel better, that's a victory unto itself."
Said Diaz, "We don't stop everybody we see. We stop someone we have got a reason to stop."
Since inviting the squad to patrol Worthing Square, property manager Sheila Kostares said she's seen less gang activity, less loitering and fewer drug bags on the ground. And the burglaries stopped.
"There's a lot of good people who live in this area who deserve good housing," she said.
Without the enforcement, an already bad drug situation would be worse, said apartment resident James Bryant. After four months here, the pat-downs and handcuffing don't bother him.
"If everything comes back clear, they take the handcuffs off and let them go," he said. "I feel safe."
* * *
In Diaz's view, the numbers speak for themselves: The unit confiscated 608 grams of crack last year compared to 187 grams in 2002. Confiscations of powdered cocaine, marijuana and heroin also went way up.
On one recent evening, the squad has collected 8 grams of crack by 8 p.m., deputy Allan O'Keefe announces to a crowded squad room. The take came during a late-afternoon bust at Cedar Trace Apartments, a half-minute's drive from the District 1 station.
While others write out reports, Deputy John Masson Jr. drops the whitish pellets into special bags that turn purple when the crack is real. All the bags are purple.
After a couple hours undercover, Deputy Willie Edom sheds his undercover drug dealer's clothes for a green jumpsuit. For the night, the undercover operation nabbed six people, including two for trespassing and three for buying crack. A sting the night before netted 13 people.
Safer streets, one day at a time.
"All you can do," Edom said, "is make a little dent."
- Josh Zimmer covers University North, Keystone and Odessa and Citrus Park. He can be reached at 269-5314 or firstname.lastname@example.org