Saturday, November 18, 2017

Tampa's legal community puts aside differences for cause of ending violence


There's something happening in Hillsborough County that may be, ought to be, recognized for what it is: People who are usually gunning for each other on opposite sides of a courtroom are pulling together in ways that might just make a difference for the future of everybody's children.

One example was a recent Saturday morning, with an event called the Safe & Sound Hillsborough Summit.

"Our communities and our nation are divided. Bias and stigma plague our communities. Fear and anger drive decisions. Before we move on, healing must occur. In your opinion, how does that process begin?"

This was one of the kick-off questions at the June 3 summit, which brought dozens of children and their families to the University Mall for a day-long event designed to head off the kind of violence and divisiveness that has often fueled tragedy in American communities.

Sponsors of the event gave out prizes to kids who took the best "selfie" with one of the dozens of police officers and sheriff's deputies who showed up specifically for them to pal around with. What an idea: Instead of confronting each other in what might be a not-so-friendly meeting on the street, let's get as many kids from as many neighborhoods and have lunch together and take some pictures with the cops!

The summit makes no bones about its purpose, calling the event a violence prevention conference. The organizers viewed it as a "collaborative," and when you look at the names on the marquee, you'll see it is. They've managed to pull in folks from opposite sides of the courtroom and, really, from all over town.

The chairwoman was Julianne Holt, the Hillsborough County public defender. The vice chairman was Kenneth Albano, police chief for the city of Temple Terrace. Found on the collaborative "leadership council" are Andrew Warren, Hillsborough County state attorney; Tampa police Maj. Keith O'Connor; Hillsborough sheriff's Col. James Burton; Kelley Parris, executive director of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County; Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller; Bill McDaniel, assistant city manager for Plant City; Hillsborough County School Board Cindy Stuart; and Hillsborough Court Administrator Gina Justice.

"Working together you have a chance to head off the violent and tragic things you see happening all over the country that keep you up at night," Ms. Holt said. "We have very different roles in court, but on this we are together."

So if law enforcement officers and lawyers on both sides of the courtroom and judges can get together to prevent, defuse and minimize violence, are there challenges that might be addressed with their cooperation?

One other recent effort was the Hillsborough County Homeless Outreach held Tuesday at American Legion Post 111, 6918 N Florida Ave. At this event, booths were set up to collect first aid items for distribution to the homeless, as well as food, clothes, flu shots, blankets, even haircuts.

The Public Defender's Office had a booth at the event, which was put on by guess who? The Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Tampa Officer Randi Whitney and sheriff's Deputy Stephanie Kramer already put on a large outreach quarterly and smaller outreach monthly.

Another example of cooperation across the courtroom is an effort involving mental health.

On May 30, Hillsborough Chief Judge Ron Ficarrotta, signed an administrative order that puts into place something he's been talking about for a long time. It's called Mental Health Criminal Division "M," and without getting bogged down in too much legalese, it is where individuals who have mental health issues that have gotten them in trouble can be treated more like mentally ill people than criminals.

According to this order, eligible defendants can enter into a pre-trial diversion program that will allow them to get treatment for their mental problem instead of going to jail.

Ask the people at the jail and they will likely, in unison, shout, "Yeah!" Because the jail is not a good place for mentally ill people to spend a lot of time. Not good for them, not good for the people in charge of the jail.

Joseph J. Registrato is an assistant public defender in Hillsborough County.


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