Saturday, June 23, 2018
Public safety

St. Petersburg police crime reduction program spotlights apartment management

ST. PETERSBURG — Within three weeks of moving into her Camden Lakes apartment, Safija Schooley's car was burglarized.

Her Honda's registration and some paycheck stubs with her Social Security number were stolen.

"It just scared me," said the St. Petersburg College student. "As soon as that happened, I wanted out."

Apartments present a challenge to police. Neighbors are mostly strangers to one another, leases are short and buildings with dark hallways and staircases may hide criminals.

In May 2011, Mathew F. Little, a security officer, was shot dead while patrolling Mariners Pointe apartments.

After Little's death in the complex, at 1175 Pinellas Point Drive S, some City Council members grew concerned.

They "thought that we needed to have more emphasis in the safety and security in our apartment communities," said St. Petersburg police Officer Chip Wells, who is in charge of a program to reduce crime in apartment complexes.

The program is the first of its kind among the larger of the Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies. Camden Lakes and Carlton Arms recently completed the program.

Camden Lakes, at 11401 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, is made up of two-story buildings that contain 688 apartments. Carlton Arms, along 31st Way S with views of the Sunshine Skyway bridge, has 259 apartments and townhomes.

Rather than a traditional neighborhood watch program, which targets residents, Wells' program is geared toward apartment management because of the "transitional nature" of the complexes. Leases typically don't run longer than a year.

"It's a totally different outlook," said Wells. "We're hoping that this program will kind of fill that gap."

The program is divided into three phases: a training session for apartment management, an evaluation of the property, and a crime prevention meeting with residents.

Management employees must complete a four-hour training session that focuses on background check options and crime prevention.

Wells then evaluates the entire complex to look for weaknesses that could attract criminals.

"Are the trees trimmed up? Shrubbery trimmed down?" Wells said. "Are there hidden corners? Are there places where people can potentially hide?"

Complexes must make changes to the buildings to move on to the program's next phase. Among the mandatory repairs: well-lit parking lots and hallways, bolt locks and eye viewers on doors, and numbered buildings.

Although the St. Petersburg Police Department offers the program for free, the required upgrades could cost hundreds of dollars.

Carlton Arms spent about $400 on improvements such as better lighting and stronger door hardware. Camden Lakes' repairs, which included landscaping and bolt locks, amounted to $1,500.

The final step of the program is a crime prevention meeting with residents.

Less than a dozen people attended Camden Lakes' meeting.

Carlton Arms had a larger attendance, Wells said, because many residents have lived there for more than 10 years. Carlton Arms is mostly a 55-and-older community.

"They naturally take more ownership of what's going on," Wells said.

It's too early to tell whether the program will work, Wells said, but apartment managers said the evaluation phase helped improve the condition of the complexes.

"Having an outside opinion, especially from someone trained, was really, really helpful," said Camden Lakes manager Jodi Watkins.

In communities with single-family homes, neighbors know each another. They know which car belongs in which driveway. They protect their homes with alarms.

"There's always that one nosy neighbor that is home during the day," said Max Bromley, criminology professor at the University of South Florida. "They become oftentimes the eyes and ears. They kind of know who comes and who goes."

But most apartment communities, Bromley said, don't have a network of neighbors.

Property crimes, such as car burglaries and thefts, are most common in apartments because residents don't know who is a stranger and who is a resident, he said.

Carlton Arms and Camden Lakes don't have substantial crime problems, Wells said. Residents in Camden Lakes reported less than a dozen property crimes, from car burglaries to theft, so far this year. At Carlton Arms, at least one theft — a stolen car tag — was reported, police records show.

"You don't get to establish any kind of a cooperative, protective relationship" in apartment communities, Bromley said. "That creates some vulnerabilities."

But at Camden Lakes, management tries to foster connections among their tenants. Managers organize breakfasts and holiday parties to create a more neighborly feeling among residents. About 50 people usually attend, Watkins said.

Laura C. Morel can be reached at (727) 893-8713, or [email protected]

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