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Police sound bells on would be holiday thieves

The Tampa police's Holiday Routine program patrols parking lots and looks into cars, notifying owners who aren't taking proper precautions to protect their personal valuables.

By RICK GERSHMAN
Published November 26, 2005


TAMPA - Deborah Short has money, and police know it.

Heck, they even gave her a card.

They weren't tipped off by the Tampa resident's silver Infiniti G35, but rather the bills tucked in the change caddy, as they inspected her car and others outside International Plaza.

Short discovered the card on her windshield. It read:

"Your vehicle has been inspected for visible items. If we were thieves, you would have lost the following items: Money."

She believes the program is a good idea: "I know people who had their gifts stolen from their cars. I would imagine this would help."

Five spaces over, Trevor Shepard's red Jeep Explorer sported a card with a different notation:

"Congratulations! No valuables were observed in your vehicle,"

But Shepard did not reciprocate the thought.

"I don't like the idea of someone looking in my windows," he said. "Even if it is the police."

He paused.

"Especially the police."

The cards are an element of Tampa police's Holiday Routine program at International Plaza, WestShore Plaza, Old Hyde Park Village and retail locations on Dale Mabry Highway.

The program has other elements - police hand out pamphlets and patrol on horseback, on bicycles and in unmarked cars.

Officials say Holiday Routine's 2004 launch at WestShore produced a 64 percent decrease in vehicle burglaries and 70 percent decrease in vehicle thefts from 2003.

However, the idea of police systematically peering inside people's cars gives some people pause.

"I'd wonder whether they were looking for something" other than exposed valuables, said Lesley Bruckner, who often shops at WestShore.

Police officials say that's not the case.

"The focus of this entire operation is holiday safety," Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said. "Countless people have been saved from becoming victims."

As of Wednesday, McElroy said, police had heard no complaints. That's also true at International Plaza, marketing director Nina Mahoney said.

"We believe it is a good preventive measure," Mahoney said. "But if we did get a lot complaints from customers, we would consider looking at it."

Some people who told the Times they objected to unsolicited inspections worried that the inspection cards might actually point thieves toward susceptible vehicles.

That was the main concern lodged when the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office tried a similar program at Seminole Mall in the late 1990s, sheriff's spokesperson Marianne Pasha said.

"It received a mixed response," Pasha said. "We had some phone calls of "thank you' and some from citizens with concerns mostly that their car had, in effect, been flagged."

After a brief trial run, the agency shelved the program for good.

International Plaza's Mahoney said the current procedure is unlikely to attract thieves.

"When police approached us, they said they're not going to single out cars, they would canvas a whole area at a time," she said. "That was important to us."

St. Petersburg and Clearwater police officials said they never have tried a procedure involving inspecting shoppers' vehicles, though they do other holiday season crime prevention.

Shepard, the owner of the "congratulated" Jeep, said he considers the uninvited police scrutiny inappropriate.

"I don't have anything to hide," the Zephyrhills resident said. "But they have no business being in my business."

Florida ACLU spokeswoman Alessandra Meetze said Wednesday the agency did not wish to take any position on the program.

A Washington D.C. citizens' rights advocate reviewed the cards and said he would "give the police the benefit of the doubt on this one," at least for now.

"I'm always skeptical of police snooping around in parking lots, but I wouldn't pass judgment without knowing more," said Scott Morgan, associate director for Flex Your Rights.

"It appears that the police are just trying to be helpful," he said. "I would just caution people that any illegal items that are left in plain view could lead to an arrest."

Police have the right to look at anything in plain view inside a vehicle, said Christopher Slobogin, a University of Florida criminal law professor.

"It sounds like Tampa police have decided to be proactive, to do problem-solving policing," said Slobogin, who has written extensively on police surveillance and privacy issues. "So that's the positive side of it."

But, he said, there's also a negative side:

"What this is telling the community is the police are going to be snooping around in their cars, and innocent people could feel intruded upon unnecessarily," he said.

"I mean, you can have all kinds of innocent objects in the back of your car that are nonetheless embarrassing - like magazines, or underwear."

If an officer did see evidence of illegal activity or possession of illegal items while looking in a car, that could lead to charges, Slobogin said. But he considers it unlikely the program also is intented to uncover criminals.

"I doubt seriously that that's what going on here," he said. "I think this is probably a good faith effort."

However, "I'm not a big fan of increasing government's snooping authority, unless they can show it produces a great decrease" in criminal acts.

McElroy said she did not know the deterrence factor of the cards themselves, but the Holiday Routine program is working.

"People who are victims of these crimes have a big dent in their holiday spirit," she said. "This is an effective way for us to ensure they are not victimized."

Staff researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Rick Gershman can be reached at rgershman@sptimes.com or 813 226-3431.

[Last modified November 26, 2005, 19:12:02]


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