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On Patrol: Plant City Officer Mark Dunnam builds trust

Police Officer Mark Dunnam searched the one-story house several times looking for the man neighbors said lived there illegally.

City workers had boarded up the home at 1209 E Laura St., but little by little the boards would disappear and the mysterious stranger would return.

Inside, the structure was strewn with empty fast food cartons, cigarette butts, clothing and, in one room, a mattress. The place smelled of feces and urine.

"We keep getting calls, but every time I show up, he's not there," Dunnam said as he pulled his police cruiser to the curb.

Not this time.

Dunnam pushed open the front door and a couple of minutes later emerged with the man who police think frequented the building to smoke crack and crash out.

Todd Cohen, 48, squinted in the midafternoon sun and stepped with a wobbly gait onto the front porch. He looked emaciated under a grimy T-shirt. His jeans kept falling off his waist.

Dunnam charged Cohen with trespassing and possession of drug paraphernalia. A swab of a broken glass vial found trace amounts of crack cocaine.

He leaned against the vinyl siding, as Dunnam, 27, a three-year officer of the Plant City Police Department, mulled his next step.

He could jail Cohen or release him to appear in court on his own. The charges seemed minor and either way, Cohen would be required to stand before a judge.

Dunnam unhooked the cuffs. Cohen shuffled away, pulling up his trousers.

"We know who he is," the officer said later, wheeling back onto the street. "He's going to his mother's house. We'll keep an eye on him."

It's four hours into Dunnam's eight-hour shift.

Dunnam is one of 76 police officers in Plant City. His beat is the downtown and midtown areas and the city's low-rise public housing projects, dubbed "the red bricks" by locals for the buildings' facades.

The day progresses slowly, but Dunnam knows that can change with a crackle of the radio. He said he likes the job's unpredictability — one minute cruising downtown and the next, "there's a stolen car going up Alexander (Street)."

Mostly his job involves "quality-of-life issues," from domestic disturbances and alarm calls to traffic problems and the ubiquitous "suspicious person" calls. Occasionally, more serious crimes erupt — robberies, burglaries and aggravated assaults. Or the job veers toward the weird side of human behavior.

"I once got a call about a man that broke into a shed," he starts, as if a punch line is coming. "I told him to come out. He comes out wearing a bra and panties. Then owner of the house comes outside and says, 'Hey, that's my wife's bra and panties.' They had a washing machine back there and this guy broke into the shed and was going through the woman's laundry. You see some crazy stuff."

No such weirdness happens this day. Cohen's arrest produces the most excitement.

It's 2:30 p.m. and Dunnam pulls over at S Palmer Street across from Bailey's Outdoor Products to catch up on paperwork, including the Cohen arrest, on his laptop computer. Afterward, he heads to Johnson Barbecue, one of his haunts, for a 30-minute lunch. Then it's back inside his patrol car, a 2011 Chevrolet Impala.

He logs about 50 miles a day patrolling a 4-square-mile area from 10 to 7 Tuesday through Saturday. His beat takes him outside the car as well to meet business owners and residents, including those who might seem reticent for fear of rousing the ire of drug dealers. Some have since become "regulars" — his eyes and ears on the street.

One such regular checks in on Dunnam's cell at 3:30 and convinces him to stop by her house.

The woman, a grandmother, says she's worried about a group of young men who moved in a few months ago a block away. She thinks they're drug dealers. She seems more angry than fearful, and stands with Dunnam in her side yard in view of the men.

Dunnam promises to keep an eye out. A few minutes later, he cruises by. The three men, with arms folded, leaning against a black car, stare back.

"The biggest thing about this job is relationships," Dunnam says a block later. "It's all about building relationships in the community and getting better intel on what's going on. It's about getting people to trust you, that you'll do what you say you're going to do."

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2454.

On Patrol: Plant City Officer Mark Dunnam builds trust 08/16/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 16, 2012 4:30am]

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