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Pinellas task force focusing on violent crime to be disbanded

ST. PETERSBURG — A task force formed three years ago to crack down on gun violence in Pinellas County will be disbanded this month, officials said.

In 2011, after the deaths of three St. Petersburg police officers in 30 days, community leaders expressed concerns about gun violence and street crime in the county, especially in areas of St. Petersburg south of Central Avenue.

The St. Petersburg Police Department and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office responded by forming the Violent Crimes Task Force, which focused on patrolling, serving warrants, and building ties with troubled communities.

In 2012, the task force, composed of seven officers and eight deputies, seized 22 guns and made more than 500 arrests.

"It was successful in terms that they were making a lot of traffic stops, a lot of arrests," Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. "They did have success in taking the guns off the street."

The task force also works closely with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, which assigns its cases to prosecutors. For example, if the unit arrests a suspected gang member, a prosecutor specializing in gang-related crimes would be assigned, said assistant state attorney Kendall Davidson.

But the team's arrest total decreased by about 50 percent in 2013 as the task force took on other responsibilities, such as helping the Sheriff's Office violent offender warrants and surveillance units. Members also patrolled the beaches during the Fourth of July and assisted investigators during child predator stings.

The task force will be eliminated May 25 and its members reassigned to other units within both agencies.

"Resources being what they are we can use them effectively in other places, and the unit did morph over the years into more of a support role," said St. Petersburg interim police Chief David DeKay.

Gualtieri plans to reassign two deputies to the warrant unit and two others to the tactical surveillance unit. DeKay said many of the task force officers will go back to patrol.

Crime rates in Pinellas have also shifted in recent years. The Sheriff's Office noted a slump in crime over the past five years, including a 3 percent decrease in 2013, state records show. Despite a steady decline in recent years, St. Petersburg saw a 5.9 percent increase last year.

But both Gualtieri and DeKay said they don't anticipate a surge in crime in the areas once monitored by the task force. Patrols will continue and the units the task force members will be assigned to often work in the same communities the team focused on, including areas in St. Petersburg, Lealman, Dunedin, Clearwater, Safety Harbor and Oldsmar.

"The activity is still happening. It's just going to be done by different units," Gualtieri said. "And if we thought that what they were doing was unique, was core and that there would be a void created, of course we wouldn't do that."

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com or (727)445-4157. On Twitter: @lauracmorel.

Pinellas task force focusing on violent crime to be disbanded 05/18/14 [Last modified: Sunday, May 18, 2014 8:38pm]
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