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Too many teens in East Tampa on wrong course early

EAST TAMPA — Shannon Wiggins was a good student athlete when he moved here at 14.

Before then, he had grown up in a large West Tampa house with an extended family. Older sisters spoiled him by ironing his clothes and giving him the first taste of whatever they cooked. Relatives remember Wiggins' friends pushing him to achieve.

Then the family moved, and Wiggins began running with a new crowd.

Wiggins' sisters, Bridgette and Rhonda Jackson, said his new peers saw glory in robbing and stealing. They settled scores with violence.

Soon, Wiggins was one of them.

His path to drugs and crime is not uncommon for a number of teenagers in the East Tampa and College Hill communities where police say they are behind most of the serious offenses.

"The highest concentration of criminals in that area are juveniles and we have a very focused approach on juvenile criminals but it's still very difficult to address the issues of juveniles," Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said.

• • •

Despite a 37 percent reduction in crime since 2003, East Tampa still led the city last year in a number of serious crimes, including aggravated assault, burglaries, rapes and robberies. It had more than twice the number of drug arrests — 677 — than nearby Historic Ybor, the neighborhood that was next.

The problem teens trade crack rocks between handshakes and rolls of the dice. They look to squeeze a few dollars out of a community that has very little.

East Tampa spans about 7.5 square miles and has a population of about 30,000. Households of unmarried women with children outrank the number of married families, according to U.S. Census 2000 and city statistics. The $11,133 per capita income of the area ranks at about half of the city average.

Nicknamed "Rat" by a grandfather because he tried to grab cheese from a rat trap as a baby, Wiggins dropped out of junior high. He would come home with new sneakers and eventually Cadillacs and BMWs. He appeared in videos with strippers and was arrested every year after 17 — except when he was in prison.

His sisters say he quit dealing drugs after those stints but couldn't escape police scrutiny, his friends or the criminal record he had built.

Police say teens often continue down the same road because they don't face adult sanctions for their initial crimes, just house arrest, which doesn't scare them.

Assistant Chief John Bennett said police now track every juvenile in East Tampa arrested for the "big four" — auto burglary, auto theft, burglary and robbery, crimes often committed by the perpetrators of other crimes. Police show up in teens' living rooms, introduce themselves to parents and let young probationers know they're being monitored.

Middleton High School, which has long struggled with a string of D grades and after-school fights, is also taking steps to curb violent behavior. The district School Board added three bus routes to take more students home so they're not standing around getting into fights.

Major Gerald Honeywell, who supervises East Tampa, also funds his own mentoring program involving 17 Middleton High boys called "Building the Guts to Lead." Honeywell meets with the youths and introduces them to business leaders and other professionals to encourage success.

Evangeline Best, chairwoman of the East Tampa Community Partnership, said the area's relationship with police has never been better.

She remembers the 1987 riots fueled by racial tension with police. Back then, police didn't interact with anyone, Honeywell said. Now, residents are startled when a high-ranking officer responds by showing up at their doorstep for coffee.

"They do their job," said Mary Cochran, a Belmont Heights Estates neighborhood watch coordinator, who has seen fewer break-ins and fights over the past two years.

Still, few would deny that there is still much work to be done.

• • •

Wiggins was arrested 28 times and served two prison terms for cocaine possession. In October, police said, he ran a stop sign and red lights and led them on a chase that ended when Wiggins hit two cars and crashed fatally into a light pole. He was 35.

His sisters say the issues that plague teens and lead them down the road their brother took haven't disappeared. Unlike some of their neighbors, they say tactics used by narcotics officers, called the rapid offender control or ROC squad, are part of the problem. They create tension by badgering teens with questions and promote fear that keeps residents from reporting crime, the Jacksons said.

Wiggins has been dead six months, but Bridgette Jackson said drug officers still surveil her home, drive by slowly and run tags of cars parked outside.

"Police figure if they have these vice vests on they can talk to you anyway they want," she said.

Assistant Tampa police Chief John Bennett said police have received few complaints about the ROC squad.

"There's always going to be a few folks who don't appreciate proactive policing," Bennett said.

Rhonda Jackson worries about the next generation in East Tampa. She said her late brother's son, who is 10, is already talking about "doing what he has to do" to support his mother.

Bridgette Jackson's daughter, Tierra Floyd, 18, sees drug users pop ecstasy pills at her neighborhood park. She no longer goes out at dark since being held up by a group of boys brandishing guns outside her home.

"I'm ready to move," she said.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Vandalism

A lot of the vandalism reports in unincorporated Hillsborough are self-initiated by sheriff's deputies and officials. Community resource deputies carry cans of spray paint so they can quickly paint over racist or hateful graffiti as soon as they see it. Unincorporated Hillsborough had about 84 percent more vandalism complaints than the city in 2009, but it covers eight times the area. Last year, Tampa had 7.8 vandalism incidents per 1,000 residents, while the county had 6.1 incidents per 1,000 residents, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Looking at it another way, Tampa had roughly 25 vandalism incidents per square mile, while the Sheriff's Office had just over five incidents per square mile.

Richard Danielson, Times staff writer

Many teens get on wrong course early, police say

Too many teens in East Tampa on wrong course early 04/08/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 8, 2010 3:36pm]
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