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Most seem pleased with policing shift in St. Pete Beach

ST. PETE BEACH

At City Hall, the community policing deputy arranges his bike and cooler in the back of his white Chevy Tahoe.

"The city's crime is not real rampant," Deputy David Mancusi says, half joking. "It's a fairly quiet, very nice, peaceful city."

It has been more than 18 months since St. Pete Beach dissolved its police department and replaced it with a Sheriff's Office contract.

Commissioners unanimously approved the plan in 2012, and it was supported by a city vote the same year. Deputies like Mancusi replaced officers, saving the city nearly $2 million annually. But while the ice cream stands and souvenir shops along Gulf Boulevard lure in tourists, St. Pete Beach is, above all, a small town. Apprehension remains.

"I couldn't name one other deputy that's out here on the beach, other than Deputy Mancusi," Danielle Mickilitsch, 32, said. "And that is certainly a stark contrast from previous, when you pretty much knew everybody by name."

Mancusi, 35, climbs inside the Tahoe, pulls up a computer program and logs in his location. His plan for the day?

Keep winning them over.

• • •

Before the city dissolved its police department, there was "a lot of thought and comparison," former commissioner Lorraine Huhne, 84, said. Huhne voted in favor of the shift.

Business owners worried that deputies would be disconnected. The beach's needs are particular, and resort owners value the perception of safety.

"You have an image to uphold," Tradewinds Resort president Keith Overton said. "And that image, a big part of it, is that it's a safe, relaxing place to go."

Overton, like many local resort managers, often hired off-duty police officers to patrol on weekends. He said he was afraid that when the officers left, the deputies pulled from around the county would struggle to maintain a presence.

Longtime residents were also afraid to lose the contacts they knew. There was comfort in hearing a familiar voice when you called police dispatch, and in knowing the person who would come out to help.

"Changes are hard. And this especially was hard because they knew that they could call St. Pete Beach, and an officer would respond to them, or they could name an officer and they could respond to them," said former Commissioner Harry Metz, 74, who also voted in favor of the shift.

When the city contracted its policing out to the Sheriff's Office, it joined the ranks of 13 other Pinellas County cities.

"The immediate goals for them were to save money and increase service," Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. "Which is, in some respects, counter intuitive."

The city projected it would save about $2 million with the policing shift. That projection has translated to a real number of about $1.8 million, Mayor Maria Lowe said. The money once allocated for the police department will primarily be spent on updating the city's wastewater management systems and bringing the pension fund back to a healthy level.

Gualtieri says decreasing cost and increasing service is possible by virtue of the department's size. At the end, St. Pete Beach's police department had about 30 employees, including dispatchers. Gualtieri has access to 404 sworn deputies in the patrol division.

Gualtieri points to his increased efforts in undercover drug busts at the beach, to search warrants served at shops selling spice, and to a meeting with a task force set to address pedestrian deaths on Gulf Boulevard.

"We have so many more tools and resources at our disposal than a small police department," Gualtieri said.

When the department was dissolved, 28 St. Pete Beach Police Department employees took jobs at the Sheriff's Office. A total of 21 officers became deputies, and seven civilian employees were assigned new posts in the agency.

The reaction among locals seems to be overwhelmingly positive. Overton at Tradewinds says he's pleased with the response. Business owners on Corey Avenue say the same.

"If you're working late, they'll come out and walk you to your car and make sure you get there," Corey Area Business Association VP Yvonne Marcus said.

Still, the sheriff knows that replacing a town's officers with outsiders can be a difficult proposition. He knows there are complaints, for instance, that they don't wave enough.

"There's just a difference between policing in small towns or small cities, and the expectations are different, and we need to meet those," Gualtieri said. "I think we do it pretty well."

In fact, the number one compliment Lowe said she can give the deputies, based on community comments, is their visibility.

"That has been a tremendous change," Lowe said.

Deputies are carefully selected for positions in smaller towns, Gualtieri said. And Mancusi is tasked with being present, hearing concerns, and attending community meetings. On community patrol, it's important to be seen.

• • •

Mancusi starts west down Corey Avenue, driving toward the water. He points toward a piece of shady grass by the blue water.

"As a transient, this is a nice place to live," he says.

Mancusi says it's one of the city's biggest problems.

His first stop is Lulu's Bridal and Fashionique, a pink building with taffeta gowns in its broad windows. On this morning, a pile of white lawn furniture blocks the steps to two back porches.

At the counter, owners Courtney and Lulu Root tell Mancusi that a homeless man has been sleeping on their porch.

"Was it the red beard?" Mancusi asks. "If you ever see him, don't wake him up on your own."

He tells them to register their alarm system and call him if they feel unsafe. The women nod.

Then Mancusi heads south, toward Pass-a-Grille, where Danielle Mickilitsch's family has owned the Hurricane Grill and Keystone Motel for more than 30 years.

Mickilitsch tells Mancusi about the stray cat she found on her back porch. She talks about a suspicious man she's seen walking around with a dog and about the very filling smoothie she got from a juice shop across the street.

"He's amazing, he's super," she says, looking at Mancusi. "He does a good job. The other ones? I wave to them and I don't get a wave back."

Mancusi knows he has a long way to climb with Mickilitsch. Her father retired from the St. Pete Beach Police Department. She grew up knowing the officers and didn't support the shift to the Sheriff's Office. So Mancusi makes a point to visit her often. He thinks he's his own best weapon in the war of public opinion.

"People get to know me, see me as a human, besides being a cop," Mancusi said.

But it can only go so far. Mancusi, who lives in Largo, doesn't go out much in St. Pete Beach. He feels the pressure of being the public face of the department. When he's in uniform, though, the most important thing he can do is be seen.

The SUV heads back north. When another driver passes, he waves.

Contact Claire Wiseman at cwiseman@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @clairelwiseman.

Most seem pleased with policing shift in St. Pete Beach 08/28/14 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2014 6:39pm]

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