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Officers, civilians trade war stories

By MICHAEL SANDLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2000


LUTZ -- As a teenager, Howard Buchanan rarely heard of a sheriff's deputy reaching for a gun.

"I came from a small community where (an officer) never pulled a gun from his holster," said Buchanan, who grew up in Colliers, W.Va.

But as rookie officer with the Tampa Police Department six years ago, Buchanan found himself navigating the hallways of a dark, abandoned duplex, ready for anything.

"First day on the job here, I had my gun out of my holster," Buchanan said to a mixed group of civilians and law enforcement officials Monday night in Lutz. "Coming from a small town, I never heard about violent crime growing up. It was a shock."

Buchanan was one of several members of the Tampa Police Department and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department who met with residents this week in a two-night workshop at Nye Park. The event, sponsored by the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County, aims to improve relations between law enforcement and the community by allowing both sides to bring issues and concerns to the table.

Bill Mellan, a psychology professor at Hillsborough Community College who has helped organize the workshops for 10 years, said there are six to eight per year, half in the city and half in the county. He said at least one workshop is given in Spanish.

"Over the years, I've seen a change where the community identifies and supports law enforcement," said Mellan. "When you come in contact with one another and have a chance to talk, you break down barriers."

On Monday, about 80 residents, deputies and officers dropped their guard, swapped stories and expressed concerns through dialogue, exercises and role-playing.

They split into groups of four to six residents and officers. Each group was asked to first list problems in the community, then problems faced by law enforcement. Then officer and resident from each small group presented their findings to the larger group.

For many residents, it was a time to talk about traffic on U.S. 41, increasing problems with drug use among teenagers, drinking and driving, and road rage. But some pointed out another problem: fewer residents getting to know their neighbors and becoming involved with the community.

"Getting people involved could cover a lot of this other stuff up here," said Dan Neeley, as he pointed to his group's list of concerns. Neeley, a sales representative and Lutz volunteer firefighter, brought his 9-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son to the workshop.

Law enforcment people said some residents sometimes forget police are just doing their job.

"A lot of times, you don't know what we just came from," Tampa Police officer Dale Frix told the group. He urged people to be tolerant when an officer comes off as stern, impatient and even rude during a routine traffic stop.

Frix later said some people forget officers are prone to many of the same daily pressures of people in other professions. Theirs just leaves little room for error.

"Just like they get upset, we get upset," he said after the workshop ended. "Everybody has got to have a cooling off period. Unfortunately, we don't have that time."

Buchanan was pleased with the response from the evening's workshop.

"I'd like to see a better understanding between the community and officers," he said. "We are human."


-- Michael Sandler can be reached at (813) 226-3472 or sandler@sptimes.com.

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