TEMPLE TERRACE — The subdivisions of River Run and Rolling Terrace hold yearly community picnics, luring guests with free burger and hot dog cookouts and food samples from neighborhood restaurants, all with an eye on reducing crime.
Linda Thanasides, who with husband, Paul, is a Neighborhood Watch coordinator for River Run, said the picnics have swelled the ranks of homeowners watching out for each other.
"Whenever anybody strange shows up, we call the police,'' she said. It has "reduced the number of prowlers, if you will.''
Neighborhood involvement is a key reason for a 27 percent drop in crime in the last three years, said Temple Terrace police Chief Ken Albano.
"That's huge,'' he said. Residents consistently call or flag down officers to report suspicious people and activities, he noted.
That, combined with Temple Terrace and other police agencies in the county sharing information about frequent offenders, has brought about the reduction.
Police released figures last week, showing that major crime dropped by 14.7 percent in Temple Terrace in 2011. In the previous two years, it dropped 4.7 percent and 7.6 percent.
Though car theft in Temple Terrace increased by 19.4 percent last year, robbery dropped by 50 percent, burglary by 17.7 percent and larceny by 10.7 percent.
Authorities with the Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office have also reported declines in overall crime in 2011. Those decreases, as well as the crime drop in Temple Terrace, reflect a statewide trend. In Florida, crime has decreased about 33 percent since 1999.
In explaining the downturn, crime experts and law enforcement have suggested theories including improved technology, smarter policing techniques, an aging population and even the recent economic decline.
Albano said his officers are encouraged to get out of their patrol cars and get to know residents and business owners in their assigned areas, which helps get everyone involved in watching for criminal activity. The department's Neighborhood Watch liaison, Tracy Mishler, emails participants with reports of crimes committed in their area and descriptions of people and vehicles linked by police to similar crimes, Albano said.
Police also try to get to know the repeat offenders living in the city, Albano said. That tells the offenders that police are keeping an eye on them.
Thanasides said she and her husband tried to organize a watch group about seven years ago, but no one showed up for the meeting.
They decided, "well, we've got to do something different. So we thought free food ought to do it.''
They threw a cookout, and 300 people showed up. In recent years, the food has been donated by the businesses in the River Run Preserve shopping center.
More eyes on the neighborhoods can only help, in Albano's view.
"I believe a key component to any department's success is the involvement of citizens.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3435.