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Downtown St. Petersburg's late-night revelry stressing police force

ST. PETERSBURG — It's been eight months since the city pushed closing time back an hour to 3 a.m. The result: Downtown has more bars, more patrons and more revelry than ever before.

But success comes with a price — and a price tag.

There's more rowdiness and more drunkenness. More officers are responding to more calls and making more arrests. That means it's costing the city more police overtime and resources than anticipated to control that thriving nightlife.

"We're going to be a victim of our own success," said St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon.

A St. Petersburg Times analysis of police data downtown shows that officers there responded to 70 percent more weekend calls for service — basically, any task an officer takes on — since the bars started closing at 3 a.m.

The number of arrests jumped 151 percent compared to the same period of time — mid May through December — in 2009.

How much difference can one hour make? Back in 2009, when bars closed at 2 a.m., patrons were already headed home. Police calls and arrests plummeted after closing time.

But in 2010, officers were at their busiest when the bars closed at 3 a.m. The number of police calls from 2 to 4 a.m. in those later weekends shot up by 210 percent. Arrests exploded by 253 percent.

The numbers back up Mayor Bill Foster's contention that downtown is "taxing" police resources. Last week the mayor asked bar owners to help by hiring more off-duty officers.

Most bars, police say, don't hire off-duty officers.

"There's all sorts of ways that the bar owners who are profiting from having a safe, thriving nightlife can partner with the city to make sure that nightlife continues," Foster said.

St. Petersburg, officials say, cannot afford to maintain that same level of downtown police in 2011.

• • •

A sergeant and seven officers — two on horseback — regularly patrol downtown on weekends. Two other officers walk the beat on overtime paid for by a federal grant. More officers whose patrol zone includes downtown could be called in to help.

But police leaders say that's not enough.

On Friday nights (which are busier than Saturdays) the department reassigns another sergeant and five to seven patrol officers to downtown — even though their shifts end at midnight and the bars close at 3.

The Times broke down calls for service and arrests in the downtown area each weekend by two-hour increments from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.

• The numbers show that arrests from 10 p.m. to midnight more than doubled. From mid May to December 2009, police arrested 91 people. In the 2010 months, there were 201 arrests — an increase of 121 percent.

• From midnight to 2 a.m. there were 75 arrests in 2009 compared to 178 arrests in 2010 — a 137 percent increase.

• The most striking increase was in the 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. hours. In 2009, only 36 were arrested. That number was 127 in 2010 — a 253 percent increase.

In September, the department estimated that it was spending 100 hours of overtime a month on downtown alone.

That estimate is now 150 hours.

"That's why I'm trying to get ahead of it," Foster said.

It's all about the bars, the chief said.

"The guys and girls who are intoxicated, fighting, causing disturbances, are coming out of the bars," Harmon said. "What else are you going to do at that time of night in that area?"

• • •

Most of the department's overtime is spent on Rays games and court appearances. But patrolling downtown has become an extra — and increasing — overtime expense that wasn't factored into the budget.

"The question is how we're going to sustain it over the long haul," Harmon said. "Having another seven to nine officers every Friday night on overtime? That really wasn't budgeted for."

The department already is slightly over its overtime budget, spending 26 percent of it — $1.2 million of a $4.5 million overtime budget — in the first quarter. The city hasn't gone over budget on overtime since 2008.

If the department exceeds its overtime budget, the City Council could approve more funding, or the money would be shifted from within the department, cutting into other police programs.

Those rising costs are why council member Herb Polson said he opposed extending the hours back in May. And these new costs come at a bad time: The council meets Jan. 20 to start thinking about how to overcome a projected $12 million shortfall in the 2012 budget.

Polson complained that the city has yet to tell the council how much the new hours are costing — or how much the city is making.

"Is the increase in business offsetting the increase in security?" Polson said. "You've given me a lot more information and details than we've heard from our administration."

The mayor said he doesn't have any data on that, but was confident of the answer: "It's not covering our costs," Foster said.

• • •

The Tampa Bay Rays and the city share the costs of securing Tropicana Field during baseball season. The team pays for its own security, ushers and off-duty officers inside the stadium. The city pays for officers to handle traffic and incidents outside the Trop.

That private-public partnership, the police chief said, is the solution to the problem downtown. He wants downtown businesses to hire four or five off-duty officers on weekends.

So far only a few establishments — the chief named Push Ultra Lounge, Red Mesa Cantina and the Bishop Tavern — are hiring them. But the clubs that do hire officers end up subsidizing those who don't.

"The taxpayers aren't getting a lot of benefit," Harmon said. "We're sending people to these businesses to prevent things before they occur. I think the (owners) ought to help us do that."

City Council member Steve Kornell said getting the businesses to help out is the best idea. A bad idea, he said, would be to consider rolling closing time back to 2 a.m.

"The fact of the matter is our city is getting younger and younger, and there are people who like to go out," he said.

• • •

Marilyn Olsen, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, said residents there understand that they live in an area that's supposed to be busy, day and night.

"I think what we're all excited about is how active and lively and interesting downtown has become," she said.

But not if it comes at the expense of their safety: "We're watching carefully to see how that is handled," she said.

Foster has vowed that he will not let downtown St. Petersburg turn into Ybor City, the Tampa party spot that became known more for people having too much of a good time. He said the reputation of downtown as a lively — but safe — area is an "asset" that the city and the bars both have a stake in protecting.

"It's reputation is really paramount to my concern," he said.

Foster said a bar owner whom he would not identify has already taken the lead to get the bars together to hire more officers. But if they don't voluntarily help out, the city may pass new ordinances requiring them to pay for extra officers, the mayor said.

"I don't always have to grab the hammer out of my tool box," Foster said. "But it's always there."

How much difference does one hour make?

A lot, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis of calls for service and arrests made downtown during weekends before and after bar hours were extended to 3 a.m. on May 14.

ARRESTS

Time periodMay-Dec. 2009 May-Dec. 2010 Change
10 p.m. to 12 a.m. 91 201 + 121%
12 a.m. to 2 a.m. 75 178 + 137%
2 a.m. to 4 a.m. 36 127 + 253%
TOTAL 202 506 + 151%

CALLS FOR SERVICE

Time periodMay-Dec. 2009 May-Dec. 2010 Change
10 p.m. to 12 a.m.589 828 + 41%
12 a.m. to 2 a.m. 626 817 + 31%
2 a.m. to 4 a.m. 299 926 + 210%
TOTAL 1,514 2,571 + 70%

Downtown St. Petersburg's late-night revelry stressing police force 01/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 7, 2011 10:15pm]

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