TAMPA — Thousands of Tampa crime suspects live freely despite outstanding arrest warrants against them. For months, years — sometimes decades — they elude police, wanted for crimes as terrible as murder.
And Mayor Bob Buckhorn wants that to end.
On Tuesday, Tampa police launched what they say is the biggest warrant roundup in the department's history.
With nearly 6,000 outstanding warrants on the list, the police department's first action was to execute 459 violent felony warrants, including eight for murder.
By late afternoon, police had arrested 33 people. Another 39 warrants were cleared because the suspects are either dead or in prison. The roundup continues through Friday.
At dawn, officers participating in Operation Summer Heat gathered in a Sulphur Springs parking lot. They donned tactical vests, aware of the danger they faced. Two of the recent fatal police shootings in the bay area happened during warrant arrests.
"These (wanted) individuals have nothing to lose," police Chief Jane Castor said. "They certainly don't want to go back to jail."
But one question lingered: Why are violent felons — murder suspects, especially — not already behind bars? Aren't they priority cases?
They are, Castor said, but she noted that the 459 outstanding felony warrants — some that date to the 1970s — make up less than 1 percent of the Tampa police's yearly arrests. It's a small fraction that gets away.
The outstanding warrants don't exist for lack of trying, said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. Police often spend weeks visiting various addresses where a subject is known to stay.
Sometimes the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force gets involved right away, especially if the suspect is in another county or state.
When police efforts fail, an officer sends the suspect's information to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which has a warrants division with 12 detectives who work exclusively on tracking down the wanted.
They scour databases to find addresses associated with the subject.
Then they interview neighbors, family and friends, picking up clues.
"It's hard to run forever," said sheriff's Master Detective Marvin Johnson, who works in the division.
Though some of the cases are decades old, he said they're never considered "cold." Detectives pick up old cases routinely.
The roundup is helpful, he said, because it offers a brief spike in manpower, which nets bigger results.
Law enforcement does these types of roundups routinely, but Tampa police say this is their largest, and Castor credits Buckhorn, who included an effort like this in his campaign platform.
At about 6:30 a.m., he spoke to the officers, pumping them up like a coach before the big game.
"There are 400 people in bed right now with visions of their next victim dancing through their heads," he said. "Well, guess what? Game over."
Then, with coffee in one hand and a tactical vest in the other, he walked toward a marked patrol car. He was going with them.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.