Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Public safety

In Pinellas County, three bomb scares in three days

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First someone spotted a suspicious package in the Largo Mall parking lot on Saturday, prompting an evacuation. It turned out to be an empty suitcase.

Monday morning, someone reported a paper sack on the ground in East Lake. It was someone's lunch: a Gatorade, a banana and a sandwich.

Later Monday, a suspicious item reported in Palm Harbor was revealed to be a backpack with a woman's change purse inside.

None of the three Pinellas County bomb scares this week has turned out to be a real threat. But the message from law enforcement officials remains the same, given the times: Just call the experts, and they'll decide whether to take it seriously.

"We don't want to discourage anyone from contacting us," said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. "The reality is, if someone does not call it in and it's something that could be dangerous to people, they'll wish that they had called."

The Tampa police and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office bomb squads serve the Tampa Bay area.

A few large stores and a movie theater were evacuated Saturday while the Tampa team assessed the package found in a shopping cart.

The Hillsborough squad handled Monday's scares. First, Keystone Road was closed in both directions while the squad looked at the package near the East Lake Fire Station. When it was determined to be someone's lunch, the road was reopened.

Then the team was called to assess the abandoned backpack at the Fountains Plaza in Palm Harbor. Several businesses were evacuated, but the Sheriff's Office told residents in the area not to fear. The backpack was quickly determined not to be a threat.

But in the wake of terror attacks abroad and in the United States — including earlier this month in San Bernardino, Calif., the deadliest mass shooting since Sandy Hook in Connecticut three years ago — officials want citizens to be alert.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement relaunched its "If You See Something, Say Something" campaign less than a week after the terrorism-linked California shooting.

"We remind our citizens to remain vigilant," FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen said in a statement. "It's important that we are aware of our surroundings and report suspicious behavior to law enforcement."

FDLE said examples of suspicious activity include people drawing or measuring buildings for no known reason and suitcases, backpacks or packages that are left behind.

"We'd rather you call and it be nothing than you not call," said Capt. Louis Pulford, bomb squad commander of the Marion County Sheriff's Office.

Pulford said his district receives about two calls per month, but that despite the California shooting his district hasn't logged a call yet this month. Still, he doesn't want to discourage anyone from being vigilant, he said.

"The California incident just shows that it can happen pretty much anywhere," he said.

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