Saturday, February 17, 2018
Public safety

Influx of Clearwater Beach visitors leads to more crime, more police

CLEARWATER — It started as a routine traffic stop.

Officers flagged a red Nissan Altima after it failed to brake at a stop sign near the Hyatt Regency hotel on Gulfview Boulevard. In the trunk, they found a stolen .38-caliber revolver. Police arrested a passenger in the car, 20-year-old Robert Smith Jr.

Smith of Lakeland sat on the sidewalk in handcuffs while blue and red cruiser lights flashed around him and the small crowd of spectators.

Just two months before, this same intersection was the scene of two shootings that sparked chaos on Memorial Day as revelers ran for cover. Another shooting erupted about 30 minutes later near Frenchy's South Beach Cafe. In all, two people were hurt and four others arrested.

Crime statistics obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show that as Clearwater Beach has developed into a bustling tourist destination attracting hundreds of thousands of local and international visitors each year, the number of police calls for service has also spiked, prompting a larger law enforcement presence.

"People from all over are coming here. As a result of that, our beach is definitely an urban center," said Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne. "Here we are having the best tourism numbers in history, yet we are having a slight uptick in crime and I think it's certainly not impacting the patronage."

From 2009 to 2013, the number of visitors increased 24 percent, with 954,900 reported last year. During that same time period, police calls for service shot up 79 percent, totaling 24,002 last year. The number of patrols quadrupled to 7,545. Crimes reported to the department also increased 6 percent.

Among the 2013 calls for service are 447 disturbances, 301 drunken person reports and 87 fights.

Police Chief Tony Holloway attributed the increased police presence to the influx of visitors.

"We have to look at that change, and with a lot of people coming, you're always going to get that 1 percent, that criminal element," he said. "That's what we've got to be prepared for."

From three to nine officers patrol the beach on any given day, though more are assigned during holidays like Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day, Holloway said. The department also recently added two officers to beach patrol.

Four years ago, Holloway created a marine unit, composed of two officers and a boat that made 191 vessel stops last year, records show. Some establishments on the beach, including the Hyatt Regency, the Sandpearl Resort, and Shephard's Beach Resort, also hire off-duty officers.

One of two anticrime units at the department is also assigned to the island. Made up of six officers who work in plain clothes, the group analyzes statistics to spot any growing crime trends. In the past, they've quelled spikes in thefts on the beach and bar disturbances.

"We're very vigilant in addressing potential issues before they become an issue," said beach Lt. William Valveri.

Police have focused their efforts on drugs and open alcohol violations. In 2013, the No. 1 arrest charge was drug possession.

Marijuana is the main drug that beach officers encounter. A hotel manager recently called police after receiving complaints from guests who said it smelled like marijuana near a room. When officers arrived, no one was inside, but they found about 10 ounces of marijuana in a mason jar and three plastic bags.

Police sometimes find other drugs, including ecstasy and cocaine, Holloway said. A 14-year-old girl was recently caught selling methadone.

"Drunk" calls also rose roughly 50 percent since 2009, records show.

"I think we're starting to see more alcohol," Holloway said, "and we're going to come (down) hard on that."

On a recent Friday night, anti-crime officer Christian Zarra drove along the rain-slicked roads of the island. He parked near Gulfview and walked through the crowds of families, teenagers and tourists, stopping once to pour someone's alcoholic drink on the ground.

"People see us and they know that we are out here," he said. "It's just being visible and giving people a sense of safety."

Zarra drove by large establishments, including Shephard's. He pulled into a Hess Express across the street from the resort and recognized a man he has encountered before. Khayree Wilson, a Clearwater transient, walked slowly toward the cruiser and shook Zarra's hand.

"What are you, drunk?" Zarra asked.

"I'm going to be honest with you," Wilson said. "Yeah."

Zarra also routinely checks parking garages and lots, pointing his flashlight inside occupied cars in search of drugs or alcohol. At a parking lot near Mandalay, he found an open Bacardi Mango Fusion bottle and containers with marijuana residue inside a Chrysler Sebring.

Longtime Clearwater Beach residents have noticed the growing crowds and some wish the area reverted to its quieter years with mom-and-pop motels and fewer visitors.

Two of the shooters in the Memorial Day melee were never arrested. Police have also not found a person who was shot in the hand. The other shooting victim, Devonte Saunders, declined to cooperate with detectives, police said.

"Thank heaven it wasn't any worse than it was," said Anne Garris, who has lived at the beach for decades. "The fact remains that if you keep encouraging crowds and trying to overload a very limited area, then this will happen."

Shootings are not common at Clearwater Beach. The last one reported before the Memorial Day incident occurred in 2011 when a suicidal man fired shots inside a home. No one was hurt, police said.

Despite the crowds, Clearwater Beach Association director Jerry Murphy said he still feels safe at the beach, which he has called home for 15 years.

"We are not living in fear. We like it here. This is paradise," he said. "Some little things are rough around the edges, but all in all, this is a great place to live."

Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or (727)445-4157. On Twitter: @lauracmorel.

   
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