Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Politics

Tampa police won't enforce county ban on sex offenders living in same house

TAMPA — The presence of about 140 sexual offenders and predators in a one mile radius around V.M. Ybor has long been a worry for parents in the eclectic, mixed-income neighborhood.

Drawing many of the offenders are cheap rooming houses on Nebraska Avenue where tenants sleep in bunk beds in shared rooms. Some properties have upward of 30 bunks and are far enough away from schools and day care centers for offenders to comply with laws that restrict where they live.

Parents in the neighborhood say the rooming houses violate a countywide ban on offenders living together and they want Tampa police to start enforcing the law.

That won't start any time soon.

Tampa Police Department officials told City Council members Thursday they have no intention of enforcing a ban they say may be unconstitutional and would make it tougher to track the whereabouts of offenders.

Several laws restricting where sex offenders live have been overturned in the courts, Detective John Guzina told council members. Research also shows there is no evidence that offenders living together creates greater danger for a community, he said.

"Based on the totality of research and our legal concerns, we are going to maintain the status quo with our enforcement of sex offenders," Guzina said.

The decision by city police is another blow for neighbors who have grown frustrated at what they see as the city's inaction on the issue. V.M. Ybor, north of Interstate 4 and Ybor City, has about 600 households and a higher concentration of offenders than anywhere in the county, said Kelly Grimsdale, a mother of two.

"These predatory people are being pushed to V.M. Ybor even from other counties," she told council members. "We have families just like yours. Would this be okay in your neighborhood?"

The county ban was enacted in 2008 after the Palm River community complained that a mobile home park was being used as transitional housing for sexual offenders. The park was 250 feet from a school bus stop.

The ordinance prohibits offenders from living at the same address unless related by blood, marriage or adoption.

City police officials and city attorneys met with their counterparts in Hillsborough County last year to discuss their concerns about the ordinance. County officials declined to make any changes to the ban.

Tampa police came to their decision after reaching out to experts including the U.S. Marshal's Service Sex Offender Targeting Center and to academic researchers, Guzina said.

They included Jill Levenson, an associate professor of social work at Barry University in Miami and one of the authors of a 2013 study of Florida's offender population. The study found that the counties with the most local restrictions on where offenders live had the highest rates of homelessness among offenders.

"Legislating them into transience and homelessness undermines the very point of registries — tracking and monitoring," Levenson wrote Detective Guzina in an email.

Kelly Socia, an assistant professor at the School of Criminology and Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, said better housing and reducing homelessness among offenders would reduce the numbers who repeat their crimes.

"If this was a type of semi-monitored housing (like a halfway house), that would likely be even better for public safety," he said. "Of course, no one wants to be the neighbors of such a house."

The decision by police may not be the city's final word.

Councilman Frank Reddick called for council to hold an April 27 workshop on whether the city should draw up its own ordinance. The meeting will include police, city attorneys and representatives from the Florida Department of Corrections and city code enforcement.

Here are highlights from other City Council action Thursday.

• Voted to establish a tourism marketing district that would create a surcharge on room bills for 14 downtown and Ybor City hotels and steer the money toward visitor marketing that would help these hotels.

• Approved an ordinance that would allow groups to feed up to 50 poor and homeless people in city parks without a permit. It comes after an outcry over the arrest of seven volunteers from Food Not Bombs as they fed the homeless and ignored warnings from police to stop and leave.

• Approved first reading of an ordinance banning so-called gay conversion therapy. State licensed therapists could face a fine of $1,000 for a first offense and $5,000 for a repeat offense under the new rule. It applies to doctors, osteopaths, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, marriage or family therapists and licensed counselors. It does not apply to clergy.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226 3446. Follow @codonnell_Times

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