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Ports move to tighten security

To stem the flow of drugs into Florida's ports, workers soon will face criminal background checks.

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times,
published May 31, 2001


TAMPA -- Thousands of longshoremen, truck drivers and other laborers at the Port of Tampa soon will undergo criminal background checks required by a new state law aimed at cutting the flow of illicit drugs into Florida ports.

Those convicted of certain felonies in the past five years will be prohibited from working in restricted areas, such as cargo warehouses, fuel terminals and cruise ship docks.

Port officials can't say exactly how many workers will be fingerprinted and checked by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. But truck drivers alone make some 11,000 trips in and out of Tampa's port daily, they say.

"This is a huge undertaking," port director George Williamson said. "The easy part is stevedores and port employees. It's tougher for truck drivers, delivery people and private tenants."

The bill passed in the state Legislature's final hours requires seaports to secure places where drugs could be moved off ships.

Ports eventually must put up fences, gates and lights around docks and cargo storage areas under the bill, which Gov. Jeb Bush is expected to sign into law today. They also must keep out people with certain drug and theft convictions.

But the final bill lacked some of the teeth proponents wanted. It provided just $7-million to fund security improvements this year, a far cry from the $17-million in Bush's budget.

The original bills set a 2004 deadline for ports to meet tougher security regulations and included mandatory fines for those not meeting the deadline. Lobbyists for the ports were able to get deadlines and fines removed from the final boot. Sponsors such as state Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, claimed the ports wanted to scuttle the entire bill.

"Behind the scenes, the ports were working real hard to blow it up, and they came close," said Burt, a candidate for state attorney general. "We had a war, and the good guys won."

Between 150 and 200 metric tons of cocaine enter the country through Florida annually, estimates the state's drug czar, James R. McDonough.

In 1998, 112 of the 168 cocaine seizures by U.S. Customs in commercial cargo were at Florida ports. Eighty-three of those were at Miami's port or along the Miami River.

Figures like that prompted the Legislature to order a security survey of Florida ports.

The study released in September by Camber Corp., a consulting firm in Huntsville, Ala., found that only two of Florida's 14 ports have sworn police officers permanently assigned. Just three require photo identification cards for employees to get into secured areas, and only two conduct fingerprint criminal background checks for new hires.

Tampa and Miami had the most security problems of the state's four major ports, the study found. While some cargo storage and staging areas are fenced, much of Tampa's port is wide open.

"Tampa's current security posture makes the port highly vulnerable to potential criminal activity and drug smuggling. . . . Access control is virtually non-existent . . . no attempt is made to restrict access or to identify those to whom access should be granted through a port or photo ID."

A big part of the problem is geography. Tampa's port stretches from cruise terminals near downtown to industrial sites on the east side of Tampa Bay, with numerous public roads running through the property.

Putting up fencing, lights and monitoring equipment at restricted areas would cost about $14-million, Williamson says.

Port directors, drug enforcement officials and Bush's office had agreed going into the legislative session on how to improve security over three years, he says.

But port officials were shocked to see Burt's bill included mandatory fines of up to $1,000 a day for ports that didn't meet a 2004 deadline for infrastructure improvements, Williamson says.

The deadline became more of a problem for the ports after legislators slashed funding for hardware such as fencing, lighting and surveillance cameras to $7-million.

Port officials expect the Legislature to come up with more money over the next two years.

Tampa's share of the $7-million likely will buy electronic equipment to fingerprint port workers and send the images to the FDLE for criminal background checks, Williamson said. Officials hope to begin the process this summer.

A random survey of longshoremen at Port Everglades in 1997 found that half had felony convictions, McDonough said.

The Fort Lauderdale port and the Port of Miami conduct background checks. Last year, only 49 of 7,206 applicants for ID cards at Port Everglades were disqualified, according to the Broward County sheriff's office.

- Steve Huettel can be reached at (813) 226-3384.

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