TEMPLE TERRACE — Most of this town seems like a suburban utopia. Old homes line streets shaded by moss-draped oaks. A historic golf course and the Hillsborough River run through the community, and the place is relatively crime-free.
To the west, however, roils a comparative bedlam of burglary, theft, assault, drug offenses and domestic disturbances. That's where Temple Terrace bumps up against a swath of north Tampa beset by poverty and crime. In any given week, police respond to five times more incidents in the ZIP code to the west, 33617, than they do in ZIP code 33637, which encompasses most of Temple Terrace.
Most of the troubled territory is patrolled by the Tampa Police Department. Temple Terrace police respond to the handful of calls per week in its sliver of city west of the town's main strip of commerce, 56th Street.
Temple Terrace police Chief Kenneth Albano said his officers don't find the western border any more of a problem than other areas they patrol. He doesn't see Tampa residents coming over and committing crime in Temple Terrace as a big problem.
But James Jenkins, who lives in that slice of Temple Terrace — on Overlook Drive, parallel to Tampa-Temple Terrace border — thinks Tampa residents are responsible for a lot of the crime in his neighborhood. He complains about people coming through a hole in the fence of an apartment complex on the Tampa side, where Grove Hill Road dead-ends. Neighbors have witnessed cars stop at night on the Temple Terrace side to meet drug dealers coming through the fence, he said.
Jenkins hasn't had a break-in and did not know the extent of the problem, he said, until he walked the streets with Temple Terrace Community Service Officer Ken Stanton to organize a neighborhood watch program. Many who came to the door talked about burglaries, car break-ins and drug deals, he said.
"I had no idea,'' Jenkins said.
Linda Valentine, who has lived on Grove Hill Road for 19 years with her husband, Donny, said she hasn't had a problem in four years. At that time, someone broke into her van to steal walkie-talkies and a GPS device. Neighbors three doors down, however, had a break-in during the spring. Valentine said she used to see drug deals in the apartments across the street, inside the Temple Terrace city limits. The complex was renovated, and she said the situation doesn't seem as bad there now.
Jenkins, a high school teacher, has lived in the neighborhood all his life. He remembers when orange groves covered the area, when Overlook Drive was a dirt road that split in front of his parents' home to bypass an old oak. Though it was always a working-class neighborhood, people took care of their homes.
But Jenkins said it has changed in the past five years. Many homeowners moved out during the recession, renters moved in, and the homes aren't being kept up like they once were.
Jenkins complained about the area's crime to Grant Rimbey when Rimbey stopped by during his campaign for City Council last fall. After being elected, Rimbey invited Jenkins to tell the council his concerns.
Since then, both Temple Terrace and Tampa authorities have responded, Jenkins said. Crews from each city have cleaned up underbrush that helped hide drug deals, lighting has been installed, and he sees more patrol cars cruise by now. Tampa police made a significant arrest of a dealer living in the apartments on the Tampa side, a police commander said.
Rimbey said Jenkins' neighborhood is a "front-line'' area that's crucial to the city, particularly in light of efforts to build Downtown Temple Terrace, a $160 million residential, retail, office and cultural complex, on the east side of 56th from Bullard Parkway south to the river.
Rimbey and Mayor Frank Chillura — also elected in November — grew up in Temple Terrace, and both talked during their campaigns of the need to reduce crime in the border areas.
Chillura said he has had a "very productive meeting'' with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Tampa City Council member Lisa Montelione about the cities working more closely to address problems in the border area. Chillura said he also expects the new Community Violence Prevention Collaborative, an anti-crime task force of county, city, law enforcement and court representatives, to address problem areas like the Temple Terrace-Tampa border.
Former Temple Terrace police Chief Tony Velong, who retired in 2008 and now lives in Tennessee, said the area "has always been a little bit more trouble.''
When he was chief, the budget was still fat, Velong said. He and former Tampa police Chief Steve Hogue had more resources and worked closely to tackle crime.
Now, "everybody's working just to handle calls. You can't do anything proactive,'' Velong said.
Chief Albano said Temple Terrace and Tampa police have an excellent working relationship. "When we have something popping up on the border, so to speak, Tampa has always — since I've been here — has always been Johnny-on-the-spot, ready to come to assist us in whatever manner we needed.'' The same goes for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in other border areas, he said.
Maj. Keith O'Connor, who commands Tampa police working the area that borders Temple Terrace, said his officers meet weekly with their Temple Terrace counterparts to discuss strategies. He mentioned a recent burglary investigation in which a sergeant from Temple Terrace assisted a lieutenant from Tampa in apprehending suspects.
Community relations officers from the two departments already are working together to form neighborhood watch groups along the border, Albano said. Watch groups can be a great crime-fighting tool, he said, but they work only if residents call police as soon as they see suspicious activity. Police are happy to respond, even if the call turns out to be a false alarm, he said.
O'Connor said the area Jenkins complains of is packed with densely populated old apartment complexes. He said such areas breed more crime because it's easier for criminally inclined strangers to blend in.
If Tampa criminals are crossing the border into Temple Terrace — and vice versa — it's not likely with any conscious thought, O'Connor said. Rather, most individuals just look for a crime of opportunity, such as an unlocked car, wherever it may be.
Jenkins is encouraged by the police response on both sides of the border. He recalled once talking with his wife, Linda, about moving out, as many of their neighbors have done. She was against it. This was where their "heart'' was, they decided.
"I'm staying here and I'm going to try to fix the problems,'' Jenkins said. "Why should they run me out of my neighborhood, where I've lived all my life?''
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.