LEALMAN — Carl Cartisano looked at the neighborhoods around the houses he owns in Lealman and he didn't like what he saw — drug dealers, prostitutes and a general bad element threatening to overwhelm the law-abiding residents.
Cartisano called for help and got two deputies from the Pinellas County sheriff's community policing program to confront the problem.
Now he can't say enough good things about Dan Doherty and Jeremy Dressback, the community policing deputies assigned to the Lealman area.
"Since these fellows here came in, they've cleaned up the neighborhood," Cartisano said. "They have really gone out of their way. They helped get the bad element out. Their presence is keeping them out."
Cartisano, who lives in St. Petersburg, added, "You don't have to live in the community to feel the effect. The ripple effect is greater than you know."
So when Sheriff Jim Coats announced that he'd be eliminating the CPO program as part of budget cutbacks, Cartisano was horrified. His feelings were mirrored by many Lealman residents and activists who see the CPO program as a needed part of basic law enforcement.
"The function of government is safety, health and welfare," said Ray Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association. "The resolution (to budget issues) can't be that we lose services that are essential."
Neri told Doherty, "You cannot think for any reason that you are getting out of Lealman."
Neri was right. A few days later, Coats announced that he would limit the cuts, allowing at least one CPO to stay in each of the four unincorporated areas covered by the program.
Said the sheriff: "I would imagine Mr. Doherty would be staying. I would have to commit suicide if I didn't let him stay."
Coats' decision came after a flurry of phone calls from residents upset about the demise of the CPO and other popular programs. The protests revealed the apparent success of the program, which relies heavily on the community deputies' abilities to win the hearts and trust of residents in the communities they serve.
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The sheriff's CPO program has deputies — a leader and eight others who are permanently assigned in teams of two to Lealman, High Point, Baskins/Ridgecrest and Starkey Road.
Those areas were targeted for their high crime rates and other neighborhood problems. The idea is that, by devoting the same two deputies to an area, relationships can be built. Those relationships allow the CPOs to get to know the community, the people and the trouble spots.
The CPOs are there to handle relatively minor disputes, such as noisy neighbors, as well as the larger problems. They also scout out the truly troubled areas and guide members of other teams, such as the narcotics and prostitution forces, to the places that need attention.
In the past year, they've helped set up stings in each of the four areas. Those stings have included narcotics roundups, prostitution busts, or both, as in Lealman.
"These were the people on the ground who were able to point the detectives in the right direction," sheriff's spokesman Jim Bordner said. "From an information-gathering standpoint, their contributions were invaluable."
But the only reason they were able to do that, Bordner said, is because of the relationships they've built with the community. Those relationships depend on time spent with residents of those areas. Time is something the traditional patrol deputy does not have because he or she is constantly running from one call to another.
"It's a nonreactionary type of law enforcement," Bordner said.
Doherty explained, "I've got the luxury of staying there" and not "running from call to call to call. ... We take everything extremely seriously, whether it's drugs, prostitutes, or a neighbor you can't get along with. ...We have the luxury to focus in on certain things."
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It's a type of law enforcement at which Doherty, 41, excels. He attends community association meetings and, when someone stands up to complain about problems in the neighborhood, he's right there with his note pad, taking down details and phone numbers.
He's often found schmoozing with community residents, listening to their problems and their hopes. He has set up meetings between warring factions in neighborhood noise disputes to help find a congenial solution. He is enthusiastic and seems to genuinely believe that what he's doing helps the people he serves.
It has made him extremely popular in Lealman.
"Hands above, he's the best CPO we've ever had," Neri said. "In community policing, personality is everything because you have to interact with people."
Doherty downplays his contributions, saying residents in the other three areas feel the same about their CPOs. And, Doherty said, he would accomplish little without Dressback, his partner, or the others in the community policing program.
"You lose a couple of spokes, the wheel gets weaker," Doherty said. "Right now, we have a grasp on everything. It's hard to let go. We don't want to lose what we have (accomplished). It's not just in Lealman. It's in all parts of the county."
John Frank, a former Lealman fire commissioner, said he remembers a time when it was prudent to carry a baseball bat for protection when walking the streets of Lealman. Frank said he does not want to go back to that time.