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Costs doom Clearwater park's police patrols

JoAnna Siskin hoped a patrol program she asked for would curb crime in Clearwater’s Crest Lake Park. Instead, an alternate pilot program is ending this week because it costs too much. Occasional patrols will visit the park.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

JoAnna Siskin hoped a patrol program she asked for would curb crime in Clearwater’s Crest Lake Park. Instead, an alternate pilot program is ending this week because it costs too much. Occasional patrols will visit the park.

CLEARWATER — Every morning JoAnna Siskin walks her dog Lulu, a border collie and Lab mix, in Crest Lake Park.

And virtually every morning, she says, she sees something that makes her cringe: vagrants, prostitution, drug use.

So after 17 years living in Skycrest, a neighborhood that includes the park, she asked the City Council last year to start a police park patrol.

Officials, recognizing that the city didn't have the money budgeted for a patrol, agreed instead to create a six-month pilot program.

The Police Department used overtime money to pay an officer to patrol 23 parks randomly and several nearby hot spots for four hours a day.

But during Monday's City Council work session, officials said they will end the program because at about $1,400 a week — or $74,672 a year — it costs too much.

In the program's first five months, officers on the park patrol made 32 arrests on mostly minor charges, enforced 28 traffic infractions and wrote 125 incident reports.

Volunteers working with police could be just as effective, officials said.

"Pull the plug?" Mayor Frank Hibbard asked fellow council members Monday.

They agreed. Its last day is Thursday.

Siskin, 54, said she understands but is disappointed. She hopes the city can do something about Crest Lake Park's problems, which she said have spread, with the homeless sleeping on her neighbors' doorsteps at night.

"I think if they could have done it the way we proposed, then it would have been really, really successful and a good thing," she said.

But, because the city used a rotating shift of officers and not a team, "there wasn't any continuity," said Shelley Kuroghlian, who frequently visits Crest Lake Park and is a member of the Clearwater Neighborhood Coalition, which represents about 40 neighborhoods.

"If you had the same officers in the parks and they came in one day and saw someone — they'd know that the person had been a problem for three weeks," said Kuroghlian, 60. "But with (rotating) officers, they're not going to necessarily recognize the person.

"They did make some arrests, but I don't think they were able to get good information," she said.

The program began Dec. 1 with advertisements and some media coverage. But, police Chief Sid Klein said, the publicity didn't work and "almost all" the police activity "was self-initiated by the assigned officers."

Of the 32 arrests, only two were felonies, both for possession of cocaine. The majority were for city violations, like possessing an open container of alcohol in public.

During the initial five months, officers worked 152 four-hour shifts. The officers were paid overtime, so regular shifts weren't affected.

In a city summary of the program, officials concluded "it is no longer prudent" to continue the program because of budget constraints.

The Police Department proposes to have on-duty officers patrol parks "as time and resources allow, supplemented by AmeriCorps members and volunteers," according to the summary.

Volunteers could lend a hand, and the department "could still provide the services" needed, Klein said.

Mike Donila can be reached at mdonila@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Costs doom Clearwater park's police patrols 06/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2008 9:22am]
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