After sundown, watchful eye calms crime

Once an area riddled with drugs and violence, Hillside Estates is now quieter and safer.

Published March 9, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - It's 8:04 on a Wednesday night and Brooksville police Officer John Cavanna is handing out candy.

At night, he patrols the Hillside Estates housing project, a modest complex of 90 units down the hill from Rogers' Christmas House Village.

It's cloudless and warm. A knot of kids follows him up and down Union Street making small talk and popping wheelies on their bikes. They call him "Robo," "Turbo" and "Rambo."

A year ago, this street was choked with drug traffic - buyers and sellers. Police Chief Ed Tincher said it resembled a "drive-in pharmacy."

But in August, the Brooksville Housing Authority, which runs the complex, signed a one-year contract with the Brooksville Police Department to pay $52,000 a year for a police officer to be stationed down here at night.

Now, the streets are quiet. The number of calls is way down.

"When I first started here, it was hopping," Cavanna said. "There were crack cocaine arrests, screams and gunshots."

But that was months ago, and the success of this program has been a bright spot in an otherwise stormy year for the Housing Authority, which has seen Joe Ann Bennett, its retired programs director, and Betty Trent, its suspended executive director, indicted on charges of defrauding the federal government.

Bennett took a plea deal last week; Trent faces trial in April.

Working at Hillside Estates has also helped Cavanna make a name for himself.

At 21, he is gung ho about police work. He moved to Florida from rural Connecticut two years ago because this was one of the few states where a 19-year-old could work as a cop.

On his rounds, he draws smiles and hellos from kids and adults. He points out where he's chased people through the woods, how he keeps an eye on anyone suspicious. A few times, he has dressed up in a Ghillie suit - an outfit that makes you look like a tree - and hidden in the bushes to gather intelligence.

But the job also has an aspect of babysitting.

He plays football with the kids, throws around a Frisbee and even races them down the street on foot.

"How much money do you make?" a little girl asked.

He told her $32,000.

"You're rich," she squealed. "I want to be a cop."

He said it's not that much money once all the bills are paid.

She didn't seem convinced.

The Hillside Estates duties are split among a number of officers, though Cavanna has served most of the time.

He is the same officer who has been at the center of controversy in the past month.

He was suspended for five days for sticking a gun in his mouth to protest the suspension of the police chief. And a School Board employee has complained that Cavanna failed to arrest six kids who were cutting school to smoke marijuana. An internal investigation has been promised.

But at Hillside Estates and throughout much of south Brooksville, Cavanna has a reputation for taking on the drug trade aggressively. And people at the housing project seem to appreciate his and the other officers' efforts.

"When I first moved here about a year ago, they were selling right out in the open," said Mechell Borges, 28. "The cops are here more and people don't want to deal with them."

"He's cleaned up the neighborhood," Lois Kellogg said of Cavanna. She moved to the small house on a cul-de-sac 18 months ago. The first week, she saw drug dealer shot in front of her house. Violence like that doesn't happen as much anymore.

"I'm really happy with the results," said police Lt. Rick Hankins. "Any time that you have a reduction in crime and the citizens are happy to be part of a community where their kids can enjoy life and play without being placed in a harmful environment, I'm happy."

Housing Authority Vice Chairman Allen Rhodes agreed: "We're very satisfied with it."

And board member Carl Pilcher said that having a cop stationed at Hillside Estates has been "very successful."

Will the board renew the one-year contract when it runs out in August?

Some of that depends on whether the City Council decides to clean house with the Housing Authority board, a notion that has come up at a few City Council meetings.

"I would certainly vote 'Yea' for renewal," Pilcher said. "(But) there's every indication the current City Council won't keep us around."

Until then, Cavanna and the other officers will keep on patrolling and hope Hillside Estates stays quiet.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.