SUN CITY CENTER
Sitting outside a shopping plaza in a community made up of retirees and senior citizens, a woman waits for her husband.
Suddenly, someone pulls up on a bike, snatches her purse and takes off before hopping into a get-away car. The woman knew just what to do.
She called the Sun City Center Security Patrol, a volunteer group that has been working to reduce crime in the 55-and-up community since 1981.
"We got a description of the car, and they were caught," Security Patrol chief Martha Finley, 77, said about the purse theft, which happened a few months ago.
The all-volunteer Security Patrol is about 1,200 strong. Between two and five cars — marked with blue decals and flashing lights — roam the roads at a time. A dispatcher at the station alerts the drivers when a call comes in.
In some cases, the volunteers have interrupted thefts, said Rob Thornton, the area's community resource deputy.
"(Criminals) don't know they're not cop cars," he said. "All they see is a car with lights on it, and they run."
The Security Patrol's role is to serve as "the eyes and ears of the community." This means responding to reports of suspicious vehicles or people, helping a lost person with dementia make it home or monitoring a fender bender until sheriff's deputies arrive.
In 2009, county officials named the Security Patrol the county's best crime watch group for a large subdivision. Its success, Deputy Thornton said, led the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to launch the Citizen Patrol Program.
That volunteer effort has spread to Apollo Beach, Bloomingdale, Brandon, Town 'N Country and Westchase.
In Sun City Center, patrol men and women don't get out of their cars or make confrontations in potentially dangerous situations.
Some of the crimes that impact residents the most include scams and fraud, Thornton said. They also have to worry about the occasional burglary and robbery.
Although the Security Patrol doesn't have the authority of law enforcement officers, those involved say its mere presence has a significant impact.
"What (crime) we have would be easily doubled or tripled without having the Security Patrol as a visible deterrent, if nothing else." Thornton said.
Kevin Smetana can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2439.