Lawman, mediator, counselor rolls in
A community police officer returns to his childhood stamping grounds with a peaceful, not punitive, approach.
By LORRIE LYKINS
Published January 4, 2006
SEMINOLE - The four kids sat in a huddle in front of Orange Grove Elementary School, skateboards at their sides. They barely looked up as Deputy Matthew Carpenter strode toward them, notebook in hand.
"Hey, what's going on?" Carpenter asked.
The kids, three boys and a girl, exchanged glances.
"Just hanging out, I guess," said Aaron Dale, a sandy-haired 14-year-old.
"You guys know you're not supposed to be on school property when school isn't in session, right?" Carpenter asked.
They shrugged. Carpenter leaned on a railing and asked for their names, ages and addresses.
He explained that hanging out on school property was trespassing, which seemed to surprise the skateboarders. He chatted with the kids as he walked with them around the school property, looking for possible damage from jumping their skateboards off curbs. He found none.
"We've had some minor vandalism here before, and I just want to make sure there's no damage to anything here before I send them on their way," Carpenter said.
The scene last week was a typical workday for Carpenter, 28, who works for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office as the new community policing deputy, or "CP," in Seminole.
His predecessor, Cpl. Dave Swanson, was recently promoted, and Carpenter stepped into the position in November. He is a 1996 graduate of Seminole High School and worked as a firefighter/EMT for three years before he joined the Sheriff's Office two years ago. He says he enjoys working in the area where he grew up and his parents still live.
The pace of community policing and the opportunity to get to know the neighborhoods and residents are what he enjoys most, Carpenter said. He sees his role as mostly preventive. He has not made an arrest since he began his new position.
"That's not to say that Seminole is a sleepy little community, because it really isn't anymore," he said. "Seminole Boulevard is a major thoroughfare and a lot of commuters moving through the county come through here every day."
As the liaison between the city and the Sheriff's Office, Carpenter attends city staff meetings and council meetings.
His job, he said, "is to work with the city and the residents to prevent problems from developing into something bigger. I guess you could say I'm the bridge between the community and law enforcement - I'm here to help problem-solve and resolve issues with citizens."
The sheriff has about 26 community policing deputies in Pinellas County, Carpenter said. The impact of community policing is difficult to quantify because the deputies focus much of their efforts on building relationships with residents.
The improvement of the overall quality of life within the community is the main goal, said Sgt. Mike Leiner of the sheriff's central district station.
"CPs address community concerns regardless of the scope. We work directly with citizens to resolve issues before they escalate into disputes. And we don't just go out and talk to people, we mediate and help folks work things out. A lot of disputes between neighbors occur because people just don't talk to each other," Leiner said.
A major issue in Seminole is kids on skateboards, Carpenter said.
"Some folks in Seminole are advocating for a skate park for the kids, and I support it. I think it's a good idea. They need a safe place to go and skateboard," he said last week, guiding his patrol car out of the parking lot of Orange Grove Elementary.
The interior of Carpenter's patrol car is outfitted like a cockpit. There is a laptop computer, an electronic ticket printer, a device that allows deputies to swipe driver's licenses, and a sophisticated communications system.
Calls on the radio and chirps from the communication device positioned above the rear-view mirror fill the car. So does the sound of a Rolling Stones tune thumping at a low volume. "I listen to 101.5, yeah, but not too loud." Carpenter also has a St. Michael's medal and a prayer card fixed to the visor above his head.
"My mom gave me that, so I figured it'd be good to have it up there," he said, patting the medal with his free hand.
Carpenter typically works the day shift. He follows up on previous calls, touches base with business owners, checks out points around the city like Blossom Lake Park and Seminole's city park.
He spends this day following up on code violation calls from the previous week and checking on city properties.
As Carpenter cruises through neighborhoods, he waves at residents, who wave back and smile.
The final call of the afternoon was the parking lot of Kmart on 113th Street. Workers in an adjacent office building had noticed a motionless woman in a parked car and called in a report, concerned that she might be unconscious. Carpenter met Seminole's Engine 29 and an EMS vehicle at the scene. Turns out the woman was on her lunch hour and decided to take a catnap in her car. She sheepishly hopped out of her car and waved away the paramedic nearby.
"Oh, my gosh, y'all, I was just taking a nap. I'm so embarrassed," she said.
As she hurriedly gathered her belongings and locked her car, a paramedic waved at Carpenter.
"Hey, buddy, I had lunch with your brother today," he said. Carpenter smiled. His twin, Michael, is a firefighter/paramedic for Seminole's fire department. On occasion, both brothers have responded to the same call.
"We get a lot of funny looks when we show up at the same scene," Carpenter said, laughing and getting back into his patrol car. He lifted his hand piece and said quietly:
"CP-Seminole," indicating that he's back on the road. He pulled out of the parking lot and headed up 113th Street.
[Last modified January 4, 2006, 01:07:18]
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