DUNEDIN — Residents on the city's south side say they are fed up with drug deals, home invasions, thefts and other crime.
"We moved to Dunedin because we like the downtown feel, and now I'm petrified. I want to move," said one of the more than 75 residents who attended a town hall-style meeting on south side concerns at the Hale Activity Center on Tuesday night.
The woman said she had witnessed drug buys from her front porch. Said another, "When are my rights by the Sheriff's Office going to be protected?"
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who attended the meeting, said his office is investigating complaints, but that it takes time to recruit informants, then conduct the surveillance and undercover buys needed to build solid cases.
He expects the situation to improve, he said, because his department has conducted hundreds of hours of directed patrols, and also recently reinstated a community policing officer to patrol the unincorporated area between Dunedin's Union Street and Clearwater's Sunset Point Road.
But, he said, deputies need the community's continued help, in the form of tips and increased participation in neighborhood watch groups.
"I think we have adequate resources. … The tools are in place," Gualtieri said. "It's a matter of tweaking things some. And that's what we want to find out tonight — where to make some adjustments."
The meeting was the latest in a series aimed at airing south side residents' concerns about issues including recreation needs, blight from vacant homes, Edgewater Drive car crashes and chronic flooding due to old stormwater drainage systems.
But crime was, by far, the No. 1 topic of discussion Tuesday night.
Clearwater officials, including police Chief Tony Holloway, came to hear ways the city can partner with Dunedin on law enforcement and other issues that spill across the cities' border.
"We know that the drug problem is a No. 1 problem and we know it primarily involves kids and young people," Gualtieri said.
He said his deputies have focused roughly 94 hours a month on dedicated drug enforcement this year, up from 40 hours a month last year and 60 hours in all of 2010.
"There is work to be done and we know that," he said.
While several residents praised the Sheriff's Office's efforts, there were also complaints, with some residents saying that deputies are slow to respond to calls about drug buys, arriving after they are over and the perpetrators gone.
Gualtieri explained that scenarios aren't always as they appear. Police are barred from trampling citizens' rights by conducting unlawful searches or interrogations unless they can prove reasonable suspicion. That's why, he said, a partnership with the community is so important.
Discussion about neighborhood watch groups led to questions about how far residents could and should go to help deputies. For example, is it okay to videotape suspicious activity conducted right out in the open?
It's legal, Gualtieri said, but rather than put themselves in danger, he advised residents to contact his office with tips (they can be anonymous) or for updates on arrests. There's also a Crime Viewer map on the sheriff's website that allows everyone in Pinellas to track incidents in their neighborhoods, he said.
"Call us," Gualtieri said. "There's nothing too minor. There is nothing too small."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.