TAMPA — They used the word "astonishing" in a press release describing the numbers.
Tampa police count a 46 percent drop in seven major crimes since 2003 — and a 9.2 percent reduction from 2007 to 2008.
The time frame has significance for the agency. Mayor Pam Iorio took office in 2003 and hired police Chief Stephen Hogue the same year.
"Down 46 percent," Hogue said Monday morning during a news conference, flanked by Iorio and more than a dozen officers. "We're very, very proud of that."
The statistics looked at murder, forcible sex offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft.
Christie Hess, a community activist in Seminole Heights, said she can see the difference. Six and seven years ago, she said, she experienced friction with local police when she joined a neighborhood effort to combat prostitution in her area.
Now, she said residents aren't afraid to walk and ride bikes with their families through the neighborhood's brick streets. They have the police nonemergency number on speed-dial, and they feel like police are interested and responsive to their concerns.
Hogue said the agency has taken a systemic, four-pronged approach to changing how it responds to crime.
They've focused on four crimes that occur in waves of repeat offenses that can be tracked geographically: robbery, burglary, auto theft and auto burglary.
"Criminals are not generally specialists," Hogue said.
People who commit these trackable crimes often go on to commit more violent offenses, he said. The goal is to stop them before they escalate to murder or aggravated assault, which are not as easily tracked.
In a glossy new 18-page booklet circulated at the news conference, police describe the strategy as the "Focus on Four Crime Reduction Plan." Police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said the booklets were paid for with $9,500 in donations from Bowen Hanes & Co., Members Mutual of Florida and Cheri Sundae Productions and will be shared with neighborhood crime groups and other police districts.
Besides focusing on pattern crimes, the agency revamped its structure. It moved tactical resources out of the downtown headquarters and into each of three local police districts.
It equipped each district with crime analysts to measure neighborhood trends on a daily, weekly and monthly basis — and gave local districts the latitude to change their attack plans to address worrisome shifts. McElroy said the strategy has been instrumental in creating a sense of responsibility for every officer on up to every major.
"You don't stop at taking the report," McElroy said. "If five burglaries happen in your sector, you're responsible."
Police were rewarded for being proactive, working sources and the street for tips to make arrests and prevent crimes, rather than an emphasis on responding to 911 calls, she said. The statistics show a 12 percent decrease in 911 calls in the six years compared with a 89.8 percent leap in proactive police calls.
And the Police Department has worked hard to emphasize the role of the community in helping to spot and deter crime, Hogue said.
"If every citizen in Tampa called the police department every time they think they see a crime occurring, I guarantee crime would go down dramatically," he said.
Essential to building trust is building relationships in the neighborhood.
"It's easy not to be comfortable with the police," Hogue said, "because we're kind of intimidating people."
Cory Smith of North Boulevard Homes in West Tampa said the officers who have gained traction there did it by getting out of their cars and talking to neighbors.
Though Hogue and Iorio said they're proud of the culture shift in Tampa, they feel the pressure for continued gains.
An abundance of vacant homes in foreclosure has increased the risk of crime. Police are targeting Sulphur Springs, which Hogue described as a problem area.
Despite the economic strain and budget cuts, Hogue said he's unwilling to accept a slide in crime rate. "There will be no excuses," he said.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3383.