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Meet the crime prevention officers

Neighborhood group appreciates crime prevention officer

ST. PETERSBURG — They call their civic group the Left Out Neighborhood Alliance, though lately Ryan and Sheryl Cox say they are feeling less left out.

Among the city workers who helped them feel included was St. Petersburg Police Crime Prevention Officer Gabiel Lopez, who last October helped the Coxes form a crime watch group.

Lopez also did something else: He listened.

The Coxes pointed to broken street lights. Lopez got someone over from public works. They complained about illegal parking and abandoned bicycles. Lopez called in the department's road patrol. The Coxes had concerns about problem homes in the neighborhood where trouble kept brewing. Lopez pulled records and showed them what the city was already doing.

The interaction with Lopez is a sea change after what the Coxes say was years of concerns falling on deaf ears.

They work and live in a concrete building at 1641 Second Ave. N and said they long felt cut off from the rest of the city.

Their neighborhood, south of Historic Kenwood, is a two-block square wedged between Interstate 275, 16th Street, First Avenue N and Burlington Avenue. It's only a few blocks away from the St. Petersburg Police Department and a mile from City Hall, but the Coxes say they did not feel like part of the city for years. More often than not, city employees who listened to them vent did not follow up to help, Sheryl Cox said.

For the Police Department, the encounter is proof that expanding the crime prevention program six months ago was a smart choice.

"He's honest. If Gabe Lopez says, 'I'll get back to you,' he does it," said Sheryl Cox. "He's absolutely an asset to crime prevention."

As Mayor Bill Foster seeks to expand community policing, the department is touting the program as an example of what works.

Like Lopez, Officer Johnny Harris, who ran the crime prevention program alone for five years, said the new help allows him to pay attention to details. Before, he handled all three police districts by himself. That's about 150 crime watch groups and a whole lot of issues to keep on top of. Now, Harris divides the city with Lopez and Officer Mark Williams.

"It's like winning the lottery," said Harris. "It gives me time to focus on the broken windows theory."

Crime prevention's main task is to educate residents about crime watch groups. It's also their job description to teach residents how to protect themselves and their property, from firearm safety to auto and home burglary prevention. Though they work closely with them, they are distinct from community police officers.

When Lopez came along, the crime rate had already been dropping in the Coxes' area, police statistics show. But Cox credits the city's codes compliance and neighborhood partnership offices with helping them remedy problems that contribute to crime, such as unkempt streets and lack of street lighting.

Sheryl Cox said she looks forward to working with Lopez more. For now, she's keeping the L.O.N.A. name.

"Until we don't feel left out anymore, we're calling ourselves by that name," she said.

Officer Johnny Harris, 45, was one of the original crime prevention officers when the program started in the early 1980s. He previously held positions in patrol, vice and narcotics, and undercover surveillance.

Officer Gabiel Lopez, 33, is an Orlando native and 10-year veteran who previously held posts in patrol, community policing, SWAT and recruiting.

Officer Mark Williams, 37, previously worked as an auto theft detective. He has also served in patrol and as a department recruiter. He's the younger brother of Assistant Chief Luke Williams.

Officer Chip Wells, 49, is a crime prevention officer focusing on businesses. He has been in the department for 25 years, 14 of those in crime prevention. He was also one of the city's first community police officers.

Neighborhood group appreciates crime prevention officer 01/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 4:40pm]

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