Hillsborough Sheriff's Office uses intelligence to target career criminals

It's a good thing detectives saw Marcello Ester punch out that condo's bedroom window, emerge with two stolen guns and try to escape through the parking lot of a nearby grade school.

But it wasn't luck.

Hillsborough County sheriff's detectives had identified Ester as a convicted burglar likely to commit such a crime, so they followed him for two days before catching him in the act.

Nor was it unusual.

Sheriff's officials say Ester's was one of dozens of arrests made through a new emphasis on intelligence-led policing. He's off the street now, serving 6 1/2 years in prison.

"We were actually able to intervene on crimes in progress," Sheriff David Gee said. More than anything, he said, that's why serious crime in unincorporated Hillsborough dropped more than 10 percent in 2009.

With intelligence-led policing, investigators look for patterns in crime and try to intercept the 6 percent of criminals who commit 60 percent of crimes.

At the center of the effort is the agency's Law Enforcement Intelligence Nexus Center, or LINC, established about a year ago. Officials say it is an innovative effort that has drawn interest from other agencies throughout Florida and beyond.

The LINC unit brings together about 10 detectives, crime analysts and other specialists who sift through raw data to help colleagues anticipate where the most prolific criminals will strike next.

"The picture is pretty easy to see once you've got the dots," said the team's planning and research coordinator, Carl Bennink, who has a doctorate in psychology. "The key is getting the dots."

Those come in many forms: Rashes of burglaries. Addresses and habits of ex-convicts. Nuggets in deputies' reports, such as a car that turns up at the scenes of multiple crimes. Pawnshop tickets. Postings to MySpace and YouTube. Observations from other county employees, like code enforcement inspectors, who notice things.

The Sheriff's Office also is taking a more systematic approach to other sources of intelligence.

"Before, these tips would come in, and tips weren't centrally managed," Gee said.

Confidential informants being brought in to work with one unit, such as narcotics, are also asked about any other crimes they know of. The thinking is that someone involved with drugs knows who's stealing stuff to trade for drugs.

The goal is to develop hyper-current intelligence for deputies: follow this guy, watch for this car, look for this suspect.

It works, officials say, and has led deputies to a marijuana grow house in the Baycrest neighborhood in Town 'N Country, a trio of copper thieves in Seffner and a Town 'N Country ring that stole more than $100,000 through the use of cloned cell phones.

The architect of this new approach is sheriff's Col. Albert Frost.

A 32-year veteran of the agency, Frost began looking into intelligence-led policing about two years ago when he commanded District 3, which covers Town 'N Country, Westchase and Keystone.

After seeing crime go up even as deputies made lots of arrests and wrote lots of tickets, Frost said he told deputies he didn't care how many tickets they wrote. What he wanted them to know and focus on was who were the worst criminals in their zones.

After six months of the new approach, crime in District 3 dropped 18 percent. The next closest district saw a drop of 2 percent.

"We realized this can't be luck," Frost said. He took the approach to his next job, overseeing narcotics, and it evolved into the LINC operation.

The Sheriff's Office also has reorganized its patrol operations to hold deputies accountable for what happens in their zones.

"This is a cultural change for this entire agency," said Maj. J.R. Burton, who commands sheriff's District 1, which includes the crime-ridden neighborhoods near the University of South Florida.

Another key piece is working with prosecutors, Frost said.

Two LINC detectives assigned to work full time with prosecutors try to make sure juveniles with long records face adult charges and prolific criminals don't slip away through low bail or lenient plea agreements. For example, judges might want to know that a defendant out on bail was stopped in a car with known thugs at 3 a.m.

"Now we can provide that to the judge," Sgt. Tripp Selke said.

While the LINC unit is rare, focusing on patterns of crime and the worst offenders is an increasingly widespread approach.

In January, Tampa police reorganized its force to create dozens of "rapid offender control" squads.

The ROC squads consist of undercover police teamed with narcotics investigators. Squads of four ROC officers and one detective are assigned to each of 30 different areas in the city.

Each ROC squad is accountable for the crime in its area. Each is expected to keep tabs on repeat offenders and trends. And each can see its assignments shift daily based on what's going on.

"That is a task of the ROC squad: to identify the problems in their geographic areas and then go about solving the problems," Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said.

Tampa police tested the strategy last year in Sulphur Springs. Crime dropped 40 percent.

In Hillsborough, Gee said he took detectives out of the districts to work in the LINC operation because "we could work smarter."

Now when Gee discusses his budget with county commissioners, he talks about the payoffs. The Sheriff's Office has 1.6 deputies per 1,000 residents. That's lower than the national average for large sheriff's offices and is a little more than half of Tampa's 2.9 officers per 1,000 city residents.

"The proactiveness is what will drop your crime rates," Gee said. "We do pretty well at 1.6, but any lower than that, you shift from becoming a proactive agency to being totally reactive: go out and answer 911 calls and do the best you can with what's left over."

Caught in the act

Mark Anthony Lockwood, 33, of Gibsonton

Charges: Grand theft, burglary and criminal mischief

The case: Deputies were working surveillance in Ruskin because of other burglaries in the area when they saw a black Dodge Dakota backed into a driveway and a man and woman moving appliances onto the sidewalk about 3:30 a.m. Deputies say Lockwood ran and was caught in a retention pond. Lockwood's charges include a burglary where officials say he tried to steal a refrigerator from a model home, but broke the water line, flooding the house and causing more than $15,000 in damage.

John Curtis Anderson, 27, Dover

Charges: Grand theft, burglary, dealing in stolen property, felon in possession of a firearm

The case: Using information from an inmate who said Anderson stole to maintain his meth habit, detectives followed Anderson to a Valrico home where he stole about $900 in property, officials said. Then they followed him to a metal recycling company, where he sold some of the materials, and then to his home. There, after serving a search warrant at his home, they recovered some of that property as well as stolen items from two other break-ins, a gun and drugs. He has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors are seeking enhanced penalties as a habitual felony offender.

Audrerto Morales, 38, of Seffner

Charges: Procuring a minor for prostitution, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, interfering in child custody

The case: A month before his arrest, the Sheriff's Office said it began getting information that Morales tried to entice females at bus stops into his truck. Officials said they got Morales' tag number from a woman who alleged he picked her up and beat her. A 14-year-old girl reported a similar attack to Tampa police. Detectives began surveillance and put an undercover detective near Morales' job site. He was arrested after officials say he offered the detective $30 for sex even though she refused a ride and said she was 16. He has pleaded not guilty.

Hillsborough Sheriff's Office uses intelligence to target career criminals 04/08/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 9, 2010 9:50am]

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