Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Public safety

Suspicious sights should prompt more calls from county residents, sheriff's deputies say

After filching a refrigerator from a home in Progress Village last summer, the burglar made it across four-lane Progress Boulevard and four blocks on 82nd Street, pushing the fridge on a dolly. • Only one person thought to call the Sheriff's Office. • When a 10-year-old boy went missing from his Gibsonton home last school year, officers went out in full force to find him. The boy's parents, deputies and aviation, canine and dive teams searched for him after he was reported missing in the evening. But he had walked along U.S. 41 earlier that day in full view of hundreds of motorists after skipping the school bus to walk to a friend's house. • No one called deputies • "Somebody stopped and gave him water because he looked thirsty," said Maj. Ronald Hartley, who oversees District IV of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in southern Hillsborough County. "Not one soul called us." • The Sheriff's Office has a host of programs to help residents take a more active role in crime prevention. They work with businesses, neighborhood watch groups and homeowners associations. The department has increased its presence on social media sites like YouTube and Facebook. They offer bike registration and trailer identification programs, and publish tips on their website about how to protect against identity theft and car burglaries.

Still, crimes or other events worthy of a phone call to the Sheriff's Office often go unreported, majors and deputies said. The apathy and lack of awareness is an ongoing source of frustration.

"It's really hard to put a number on it, but it never ceases to amaze me," Hartley said.

And it's not just people who don't want to snitch, though that is an ongoing problem.

Sometimes people witness a crime in progress, but shrug it off. Maybe they see someone taking an appliance from a neighbor's house. Maybe that person is supposed to be there, they reason. Maybe they're helping them move.

The Sheriff's Office encourages citizens to call in anything suspicious they see in their neighborhoods. But often, Hartley said, they don't know what normal in their neighborhoods looks like.

"People don't know their neighbors anymore," he said. "They don't even know their names."

A lack of knowledge about what the Sheriff's Office does and how it operates factors in, too. Some people don't realize they take calls at all hours, said Tammy Cuscaden, community resource deputy.

"All the time, people call with things that happened three days ago and they want you to do something about it," she said.

As the size of the county and the Sheriff's Office grows, so too does the need for more citizen involvement, said Maj. Clyde Eisenberg, who oversees District II in eastern Hillsborough County. When Eisenberg began, the county had a population of less than 400,000. Now there are more than 190,000 in his district alone.

Eisenberg has seen some improvement in the Sheriff's Office's relationship with communities, particularly in areas like Palm River and Clair-Mel, where crime has decreased, he said. With more homeowners and businesses moving into those areas, the Sheriff's Office finds more people with a greater stake in the community who are willing to cooperate or offer information.

It's not about being nosy, Eisenberg said, it's about being observant and knowing your neighborhood. The Neighborhood Watch for Buckhorn Estates in Valrico has been particularly successful, he said, led by director Ken Nailling, who has lived there for 27 years.

Homes newly available to rent, or homes purchased by lifelong renters, have brought in some residents who still have an "apartment mentality" and shy away from getting to know their new neighbors, Nailling said.

"We make the extra effort to make them feel like part of the neighborhood," he said.

Nailling's community sends out an email newsletter to residents, with information about crime next to notes about the annual Christmas tree lighting and neighborhood scholarships.

"We try to educate residents and keep them involved, not to scare them but to keep them aware," he said.

Dan Webb, who works for G4S Secure Solutions, which provides security to the neighborhoods of Carrollwood Village, said the community patrol often responds to calls ranging from loud dogs to suspicious vehicles.

Sometimes residents hesitate to call 911, but will call the community patrol, which will assess a situation and decide whether to call the Sheriff's Office, he said.

Sometimes they'll advise a resident to call 911 directly and then monitor from a distance while waiting for law enforcement, depending on the seriousness of a situation.

G4S patrols the 45 or so subdivisions that are a part of Carrollwood Village. Many of the residents, Webb said, will call the community patrol when they see something that doesn't sit right with them.

Keeping their eyes and ears open, he said, helps keep crime in the area down.

Nailling has seen the benefit of involved residents, too.

A man who lived in the neighborhood had been arrested for residential burglary. Neighbors noticed when he returned after serving time, and they noticed when the burglaries restarted. The man was identified as a suspect and arrested again, Nailling said.

It isn't a perfect system, he said. People get busy, they pay less attention, or they don't always know what to look for. But a little vigilance can go a long way.

"We spread the word, try to get dozens of eyes and ears on the street and aware," Nailling said. "It's constantly an effort of education and giving them feedback of what happened as a result of their tip or suggestion or observation."

Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2453.

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