ST. PETERSBURG — Detective Tom Loveland used to go undercover to arrest drug dealers. Now he fights crime by knocking on doors.
"You asleep?" he asked the lanky teenager who took too long to answer the door Wednesday evening.
"No, on the computer," the 15-year-old said.
"You doing good?" the officer asked.
"Yeah," the kid said. "All A's."
"Really?" Loveland said. "Good."
The detective is part of a new police unit, the Career Offender Tracking and Apprehension unit, or COTA, whose job it is to keep tabs on the city's worst offenders — juvenile and adult.
St. Petersburg police theorize that because most crimes are the work of a handful of criminals, it makes sense to aggressively target them.
"The quicker we get them," said Assistant Chief Dave DeKay, "the sooner we get them before they commit a crime."
The city says that kind of approach helped slash auto thefts by 43 percent and burglaries by 20 percent this year.
"We don't want to put the kids in jail, we don't want to send them anywhere," said Detective Amanda Newton. "We're trying to educate them. Now the kids know. There's no secret:
"We're watching you, and we're going to keep watching you."
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Next to the Charlie Brown-looking Christmas tree on Newton's desk are two brown folders.
Their labels say: Needs to be Arrested and Arrested.
Out of the hundreds of adults and juveniles who have been arrested in the city, COTA only keeps the worst on its list. Right now that's 92 adults and 175 juveniles.
The unit also has responsibility for monitoring neighborhood gangs and hunting down wanted adults.
Patrol officers used to try to find wanted suspects when they had time. Now, COTA detectives can spend time searching for suspects, gathering intelligence and keeping at it for hours.
That same approach also helps the unit crack down on the city's repeat juvenile offenders.
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The detectives assemble dossiers on each kid and gather information from schools and parents. They find out the conditions of their release and attend each court hearing.
Once arrested, juveniles can only be held for up to 21 days in juvenile detention before they are released. But only the worst offenders spend that long behind bars. Police complain that the rest, including most car thieves and burglars, go home much sooner.
That means they're free to reoffend. It could take days before probation officers learn of a violation and arrest the juvenile.
Now, with COTA, it takes just hours.
"If the juveniles know you're coming, they're going to do what they're supposed to do," said Sgt. Patrice Hubbard, who commands the unit's 12 detectives and one analyst. "That's because they don't want to get in trouble. They know this is the last straw."
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Getting on COTA's list takes effort.
These are kids who have screwed up more than once. Serial burglars or car thieves. Or people who hang with them. Stealing cars is a skill that often gets passed down to the younger generation.
"We try to pick the worst," Newton said.
Juveniles on the list can expect a kind of round-the-clock surveillance: Detectives will check to see whether they're at school during the day and if they're obeying curfew at night.
Some nights, a detective can check in on as many as 25 kids.
On Wednesday, Loveland sought five.
Four were home. The fifth was at a youth football game with his mother. She left the officer a two-page note and her cell number.
"Knowing we can check on them at any time," Loveland said, "is probably the most effective part of this."
• • •
Even the parents are starting to get onboard. Especially the ones who have lost control of their teenagers.
"We'll get calls like 'My son's not home, please go get him,' " Newton said.
The officers try to explain to each parent what they're doing. But some just don't care.
Loveland remembers trying to explain to one parent in a tony gated community on the city's north side why they would be visiting her home several nights a week.
"Do I have to stand here and listen to this?" the mother asked, according to the officer. Her son was home during Wednesday's check. He wasn't very chatty.
But on Thursday, Loveland learned that the teenager had been to school only nine of the last 71 days.
Loveland went back and arrested him Thursday night.
The mother's reaction, according to the officer:
"Why are you picking on my kid?"
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Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Irene Sullivan said the juvenile judges support the new program, but they don't want police to target every juvenile for every offense.
"I think the whole unit is a good idea," she said. "As long as they're not being arrested for minor violations of probation and they're not on probation for minor offenses."
Police say the program's goal isn't to keep kids locked up. In the first two pilot programs, 17 of the 268 home visits resulted in an arrest, or just 6 percent. In the second program, 90 of the 1,770 home visits resulted in an arrest, or 5 percent.
"We don't want to institutionalize the kids," Newton said. "We want to make sure we intervene in a child's life so they don't become a career offender."
Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said the detectives seem to be targeting those who need it.
"They're out there living it on the street. They see what's going on," he said. "It's very easy for them to tell who the players are and aren't."
Repeat juvenile offenders had become far too comfortable, he said.
"When they sit in the back of a cruiser and talk about how quick they're going to get out of detention, that is not a good situation."