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St. Petersburg police are back on foot on the downtown beat

ST. PETERSBURG

Sheri Kendrick moved her photography business downtown seven months ago. She remembers the rape and robbery at the Table restaurant two years ago. She sees people living on the streets outside her Central Avenue studio.

So when a police officer appeared in her doorway recently, she had questions.

Is the alley behind her business safe? "I go by there twice a night," Officer Teddy Williams told her. Still, he said, be careful.

Are the homeless harmless? He paused. It depends, he said.

Was there anything else the officer could do for her?

"Someone urinated out front," said Kendrick, 40. "It smelled for three or four days. Hard core."

Even worse deeds, she said, were committed out back.

"That's not acceptable," he assured her.

Then Williams wished her a good day on his way to the next storefront. But he didn't leave on a golf cart, an ATV, a Segway or even a horse. Williams left on foot.

For the first time in four decades, St. Petersburg police are walking the downtown beat.

• • •

Mayor Bill Foster said he heard it from downtown business owners again and again during the campaign: Why don't they see more police officers?

"They wanted a presence," Foster said, "and I've always been of the mind-set that you show the people what they're paying for.

"There's no better way than to get officers out of their cars, knocking on doors, talking to shopkeepers."

That part of town already has its own dedicated squad: the downtown deployment team. But the eight-member squad often found itself dealing more with vagrants than the public.

"The intent is to establish goodwill with our downtown business partners," said police Chief Chuck Harmon. "Sometimes it's hard to do that in between the calls and the responsibility of their duties."

The solution: pay officers to show up two to three hours before their shift. Now they spend lunchtime walking the beat and talking to business owners. They're paid through a three-year, $370,000 federal grant dedicated to police overtime.

It's the first visible public safety change Foster has made since taking office in January. It won't be the last, he says.

Next week Foster, Harmon and more than 100 residents will gather at a Feb. 17 community retreat to discuss the mayor's policing agenda.

It could be the city's first glimpse at changes the mayor promised during the campaign: from enhanced community policing to a more aggressive police pursuit policy to installing surveillance cameras.

• • •

Williams is the downtown team's senior member.

He's been on the job 19 years, half working downtown. There isn't much downtown that he doesn't already know. But meeting business owners every day is helping him fill in the blanks.

He agreed to let the St. Petersburg Times accompany him as he walked the beat Thursday, his second week on foot.

Everywhere he went, complaints shared a common target: aggressive panhandlers.

"They don't even come up and ask for a dollar anymore," said Mastry's bartender Alena Maynard. "Now they want $5."

The proprietors of Central Cigars and the Havana Room said their bouncer spends more time outside than inside.

"We have a lot of customers who just don't like to sit outside," said owner Greg Haddad. "It wasn't an issue when we knew our police officers."

But Haddad, 46, said he's already seeing changes. Last week, he said, officers checked on his outside customers after a transient approached them.

"Just the presence is the key," he said. "It's still a small town and the word gets out: back off."

• • •

Business owners will get to know their officers again, Williams said.

His time on the beat is spent engaging and informing downtown businesses. But he also does a fair bit of policing on foot.

On Thursday, he spotted a good place to stake out drug activity at night. He also warned businesses to be on the lookout for a prolific graffiti writer who has been leaving a tag all over.

What about the transient problem? There's a difference, the officer said, between those who have to live on the streets and those who choose to.

"There's people here who want to get help, who want to get back on their feet," he said. "The other individuals don't care.

"I've seen some people on the street my entire career. They don't want rules. They think they should do whatever they want whenever they want."

Police keep trying to curb that. Williams said his total number of arrests and citations issued last year was about 375. His team did 2,500 citations and arrests.

But there's no easy answer to that problem. Just enforcing the law, he said, has its limits:

"You've got guys here proud of being arrested 100 times."

St. Petersburg police are back on foot on the downtown beat 02/08/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 9, 2010 12:00am]
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