HYDE PARK — This year was to be the real test of Tampa police's 2-year-old "zero tolerance" Gasparilla enforcement policy.
Last year, aided by rain that limited paradegoers to 150,000, police made 415 arrests. With clear blue skies on Jan. 29 and more than double the crowd, there would be many more people cited, right?
Wrong. There were 342 arrests. And for the second straight year, no Hillsborough County public school students were among them.
"I didn't see much on my street that indicated a problem," said John Jones, president of the Historic Hyde Park Neighborhood Association.
It's an improvement for a parade that just two years ago was marred by reports of public urination, vomiting, fights, open sexual activity and passed-out teens. Growing complaints to the City Council and police prompted officials and parade organizers to implement a zero-tolerance policy in early 2010. Underage drinkers and those exhibiting lewd behavior or holding an open container in areas not appropriately zoned faced arrest, no questions asked.
In the past, police limited arrests to overt criminal acts and made 166 arrests in 2007, 103 in 2008 and 127 in 2009.
With the new policy, those numbers surged but decreased this year.
"When neighbors spoke out tired of the chaos, we changed Gasparilla and launched our zero-tolerance campaign and we anticipated having the most arrests the first year," police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said. "We had the same approach to enforcement this year, but it seemed like people were being more responsible and being much more aware that walking around with a beer was not responsible and we don't live in New Orleans. We live in Tampa."
Besides enforcement, parade organizer EventFest increased the number of portable toilets at the parade from 800 a few years ago to 2,000, McElroy said.
Education also increased. Last year, police made pre-Gasparilla presentations to 11 high schools and at MacDill Air Force Base. This year, an officer reached six additional schools. Police also gave an informational video to every Hillsborough high school and middle school, Hillsborough Community College, the Stetson University College of Law and Tampa, South Florida and Central Florida universities.
Police simplified their alcohol zone from pockets along the parade route to one contiguous drinking area, from Bayshore Boulevard to the Brorein Street Bridge to Ashley Drive to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
With the help of Pepin Distributing and Clear Channel Communications, the route was advertised on 23 billboards, 1,000 posters, a mobile application and websites. A recorded phone message from Mayor Pam Iorio and Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia reached every home with Hillsborough middle and high school age children, school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said.
Of 43 underage people cited for possessing alcohol, only one was younger than 18. "That person went to school in Largo," McElroy said, "and was not part of our education campaign."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.