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Arrests more than triple at Gasparilla

TAMPA

Mother Nature accomplished what police, neighbors and the mayor herself have been trying to do for years — tame the street-fighting, public-urinating, breast-baring beast that is the Gasparilla parade. But she didn't do it alone. Despite the rain, tens of thousands descended on Bayshore Boulevard, clad in pirate gear and ponchos, with visions of beads, booty and beer dancing in their heads. And waiting for them with a fresh game plan were the Tampa police. By parade's end this year, they made 413 arrests — most of which were alcohol-related. Compare that to the past three years' average of 132. The difference this year? Zero tolerance.

• • •

Before he knew how the day would go, police Capt. Robert Lovering spoke to a group of about 15 officers in the parking lot of the Sweetbay Supermarket on Swann Avenue.

"Today," he said, "we've come to try to make a difference from this day forward on how Gasparilla is going to be run. We have a zero — zero — tolerance for alcohol. Everybody from the media to the neighborhoods are going to be videotaping everything you do and everything you don't do. …

"Watch your backs out there."

It was 1 p.m., three hours after their first roll call and 40 or 50 arrests into the day. In years past, police made arrests only if they saw huge fights or overt criminal acts. Otherwise, they'd tell those with open containers to move on. This year, because of neighborhood outrage at public drunkenness, they changed their rules of engagement.

Fifty extra officers policed residential streets along the parade route, increasing this year's number of neighborhood enforcers to 275. Instead of being stationed at corners, they were encouraged to roam. Their orders were to "catch and release" as often as possible, scribbling written arrests and letting people go. Only the worst offenders and those without local addresses — 24 in all — were detained. All told, there were 406 misdemeanor and seven felony arrests.

Before the streets were soaked with rain, they were wet with beer. Police officers stopped parade­goers at intersections and made them dump their drinks, but they weren't able to catch everyone. On Howard Avenue, girls mixed drinks and a group refilled cups from a small keg hidden under a blanket. One guy made it past an officer with a small bottle of whiskey in his pocket.

Officers Mike DiStefano and Terrance Covais snaked through the soggy streets in a golf cart. They spotted two young women carrying cans of beer.

"Ma'am?" Covais asked the one in a handkerchief top as she put down her can of Natural Light. "Don't try to hide the beer. Let's see your ID."

She didn't have one. She said she was a 20-year-old University of Tampa student and got angry when one of the officers took out his notebook.

"What are we getting written up for?" she slurred.

"You're 20," the officer said. "Are you high?"

Twenty minutes later, they drove away with a sample of her beer as evidence. She stayed behind crying, with a folded-up court date in her hand.

That is the kind of action Jack Wyatt wanted when he and his neighbors set out last year with digital cameras to show officials exactly how ugly the day gets. This year, he took his dog and his bike down every troubled corner he visited last year and saw the kind of Gasparilla he envisioned.

"It was smooth as glass," he said. "I was so impressed with the Tampa Police Department."

Last year, the streets teemed with glassy-eyed, falling-down teenagers swigging suspicious liquids from plastic containers. This year, after 1,500 public-service announcements, 600 posters, nine digital billboards and a police lecture at every public and private high school, not so much.

The number of high school students this year charged with alcohol possession: three.

The St. John's Episcopal Church cared for 11 drunken kids this year at its annual safe house, organizer Leland Baldwin said. That's half of what they took in last year, which included two hospital trips for alcohol-induced comas. The number of safe house kids sent to the hospital this year: zero.

• • •

Other changes helped, too. Gasparilla organizers doubled the number of portable toilets this year, which meant lines were minimal. And the extension of the parade route onto downtown's Ashley Drive gave people an alternative to the SoHo scene.

More than 6,000 people lined the parade's newest leg. People waved and called for beads from balconies at the Sheraton Hotel and the Skypoint condominium. The afternoon crowd was thin at Curtis Hixon Park, but local bars drew in droves with their DJs.

Pamela Alley, 39, made the drive from Ellenton on a whim Saturday morning and enjoyed having space to move around on Ashley Drive.

"I stayed away because I heard about the problems," she said, "but then I heard that they were doing more to make the parade safe and I decided, why not?"

She and her two friends credited the weather with keeping others away. Organizers agreed, estimating that the crowd was far less than half of last year's 350,000. The crowd in the Davis Islands area was also more subdued — no bikini-clad women and no one throwing the customary water balloons. And the flotilla was far smaller than normal, perhaps because of the small-craft warning.

One corn dog vendor packed up his goods and left with half of last year's profits. Another made up for losses with poncho sales. Dozens who braved the early rains streamed up Howard Avenue before the parade's end.

But as winds hit 30 mph and whitecaps crashed on the bay, as vendor carts tipped over and pirate flags flapped with force, people stayed. And they had fun.

Some people covered their heads with palm fronds and plastic bags. But Mayor Pam Iorio got rid of her poncho and embraced the rain.

"How many times as an adult do you get to walk in the rain?" she asked. "As a kid, you do it all the time."

After the last pirate had left Bayshore Boulevard — and Officers DiStefano and Covais looked in vain for more troublemakers — Iorio walked up to the city tent with a wet head and a beaming smile.

Times staff writers Amy Scherzer, Robbyn Mitchell and Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Arrests more than triple at Gasparilla 01/30/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 2, 2010 3:31pm]
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