Assigned to one of Tampa's most crime-plagued neighborhoods, Tampa police Master Patrol Officer Dale Frix saw it all.
Drugs. Murders. Prostitution.
But he also got to know the people. In them, he saw hope and potential in the neighborhood.
So he began to invest in it, going above and beyond his job to change things he saw on the streets and in the schools.
This week, that took the police veteran dressed in his uniform blues to do something atypical from his job description.
He went on a shopping spree — for a group of elementary school girls.
Along with a community worker, he roamed the aisles of the University area Target, looking for T-shirts and shiny belts, shoes with hard soles and scarves to tie around waists. He compared boot-cut slacks to straight cut pants and speculated whether material "breathed" or not. He banged shoes against display shelves to test their tapping potential and asked the store manager to scour stockrooms for missing sizes.
"You wanted something with pink, didn't you?" he asked holding up a scarf.
• • •
Frix, born at Tampa General Hospital, is a third-generation Tampa police officer. His father and grandfather worked for the Tampa Police Department. His 21-year-old daughter is about to join the police academy.
In 2005, he was assigned to Sulphur Springs. Two years later, he helped reshape the police Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, unit in Sulphur Springs. He was part of a proactive team of officers who looked for arrests, new sources and issues affecting community leaders.
"It's kind of a balance between good and evil," said Frix, 40. "You have to be out there a lot, arresting the criminals, but you're also at the community meetings and in the school meetings, listening to what people need."
For years he had noticed strewn shopping carts all over Sulphur Springs and thought removing them would pretty up the neighborhood. So he used his own truck and trailer and began picking up carts with some help from Home Depot workers. Together, they collected more than 330 carts — about $85,000 worth — and returned them to area stores. He learned most of the carts came from renters and homeowners without cars who stole them to get their laundry to laundromats and bring their bundles of groceries home.
Frix warned the residents who had stolen the carts, but he knew they needed a legal alternative to transport their possessions. He applied for and received a $1,000 Walmart neighborhood grant, then used the money to buy personal push carts for residents.
About a year later, Frix again applied for the grant and bought 20 Sulphur Springs Elementary School students school uniforms. He also bought needed equipment for fellow Sulphur Springs officers that the department couldn't afford, such as leg irons to detain suspects and drug addiction handbooks to understand addicts.
Last fall, Frix attended a National Night Out event and saw a Sulphur Springs dance team perform in mismatched outfits. He talked to the coach who told Frix the kids didn't have any matching uniforms.
So Frix applied for the Walmart grant again, and began working with Jason Grooms, branch operations director for the YMCA, to get the team matching outfits.
The YMCA partners with Sulphur Springs Elementary on after-school and extracurricular programs. Last year, the branch had restarted a girls step team known as "S35," which stands for Sulphur Springs grades three through five. Using dance steps, stomps, spoken word and hand claps, the team competes against other teams and performs at special events such as school awards shows and parent-teacher summits.
"It helps with behavior issues," Grooms said. "It helps with self-esteem. It builds character and focus. And believe it or not, it helps them with their mathematical skills as well."
About 14 girls make the team, chosen for grades, attendance, attitudes and willingness to mentor their peers.
"We participate and learn to be mature and get along," said Nakeyia Clarke, 11, a fifth-grader. "We don't fight and we get to step. You get to be loud and you get to act."
They learned lessons through S35 such as perseverance.
"If you mess up," third-grader Miracle Bailey said, "don't stop."
The team had no lack of interested participants, but it didn't have enough dance outfits. Between 96 and 98 percent of Sulphur Springs students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The average household income for a Sulphur Springs family of four is $10,600 a year, Grooms said.
The kids' families couldn't afford dance uniforms.
So Grooms turned to Frix, who saw his next investment cause.
Grooms accompanied Frix and another officer on the shopping spree where they shopped the girls and women's aisles, debating the stylings of pink striped scarfs and black yoga pants. After three hours, they rolled a shopping cart with $938.03 worth of clothes out of the store.
"This will make them all look uniform in their competitions and give them a sense of pride," Frix said.
• • •
This January, Frix was transferred to Tampa police's "ROC" or Rapid Offender Control squad, a hard-hitting reactive street team that handles a lot of drug crimes. No longer in his community-oriented role, Frix could have easily focused on his new duties and stopped looking for neighborhood grant money.
But he didn't — nor does he plan to stop looking to improve Sulphur Springs.
"I didn't go anywhere," he said. "I'm just in a different capacity. I'm still in the same neighborhood, doing as much for the neighborhood as I can."
Justin George can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3368.