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    Crime drops, but calls to police soar

    The city's police chief ties the rise in calls to his department's efforts to be more responsive to residents and to respond to quality of life issues.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2001


    LARGO -- Crime went down last year, but Largo police officers have been as busy as ever.

    Noise complaints. Car accidents on private property. Code enforcement matters. Police officers are increasingly being asked by Largo residents to handle these issues.

    As a result, calls for service to the Largo Police Department went up by 41 percent last year, even as reported crimes dropped by 14 percent, according to police department figures.

    Police Chief Lester Aradi said he was not surprised by the data. He thinks the increased number of calls for service is directly connected to his department's efforts to be more responsive to residents.

    "The more full-service you are, the more the number of calls goes up," Aradi said Monday. "We have become more involved and should be more involved in quality of life issues."

    The numbers were full of good news for the department. Violent crime went down by 16.4 percent. Domestic violence offenses, long considered an important area of law enforcement by Largo police, fell by 25 percent. Aggravated assault charges fell by more 28 percent.

    Aradi, who was hired by the city in February from Buffalo Grove, Ill., where he served as deputy chief, said the figures show Largo is a safe community.

    "I think the numbers bear that out," he said. "And I have every intention of keeping it that way."

    However, the data show some room for improvement. Although tickets for traffic violations and driving under the influence arrests declined from 1999, traffic accidents increased 18 percent. Aradi attributed the jump to a shortage of police officers to handle traffic enforcement.

    Aradi was troubled by the accident statistics.

    "Obviously, our manpower strength isn't what it should be," Aradi said. "That takes away from addressing traffic issues."

    The department is short 13 officers.

    Last month, Aradi announced that he would remove the bachelor's degree requirement for officers in an effort to widen the candidate pool for the department. The chief hopes the new hires will help the department strengthen its community policing efforts.

    Despite the shortage of police officers, Aradi said he was not bothered that officers were dealing with more quality of life issues.

    "They should be calling us," he said.

    Ever since the Largo Police Department began its community policing program in 1993, police supervisors have encouraged residents to reach out to them.

    Code enforcement duties were transferred from the community development department to police in 1997.

    Nationwide, law enforcement agencies have paid more attention to what had been considered minor offenses, aware that those issues could someday sprout into serious incidents.

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