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Pressure grows for more cops on street

A statistician can point Christopher Houp to the hard numbers. Not only has the city's overall crime rate fallen more than 20 percent since 1990, but crime is even dropping around the Pizza Hut he manages at 2551 34th Street S.

The numbers are little comfort to Houp, though.

"My employees many times feel unsafe, and the talk around work is always about a crime or a series of crimes committed in the immediate area," he wrote City Council members recently. "If this is the effect it has on my employees, imagine what effect it has on my customers."

His fear, and his desire to see more police officers in his area, is anything but unusual. In a community with one of the lowest crime rates of any major Florida city, where once bottomed-out, crime-infested neighborhoods are starting to revitalize, pressure is growing to put more cops on the street.

Neighborhood activists are complaining about police being spread too thin. Businesses are calling for more police visibility. City Council members, while preaching the gospel of lower property taxes, are talking up the need to hire more officers.

At a Thursday council meeting, a dozen residents and business representatives from around 34th Street S between 26th and Fifth avenues will call on council members to increase police visibility. And even with police pointing to figures showing crime declining in that area, the parade of crime-wary residents can expect to see some receptive council members.

"I think we need to place more emphasis and place more police officers on the street," said council member Bob Kersteen, echoing several of his colleagues during a Tuesday council workshop. "We need a better police presence in the community."

All this could have a profoundly tangible impact on the city's budget, while having a barely tangible impact on crime in the city.

Consider that adding one more police officer 24 hours a day to each of the city's nine police sectors means hiring 49 new officers, when shifts and vacations are factored. At roughly $50,000 a cop, that comes to more than $2.4-million, without any significant increase in visibility.

Consider also statewide law enforcement figures that show the two big cities with the lowest police staffing levels per capita _ St. Petersburg and Jacksonville _ also happen to have the lowest per capita crime rates.

But in crime, like politics, perception is everything.

"When a friend of mine is held up in a church parking lot, I don't want to hear about statistics," Council member Larry Williams said Tuesday. "We've got to change direction and give some security back to the people of this city."

Police Chief Darrel Stephens has a national reputation in community policing, often speaking at conferences or on interview shows. To him, the calls for more officers clearly are frustrating, a hint that the very essence of his law enforcement philosophy is vulnerable.

"What they are saying is, "We like community policing, but we also want to do the traditional things that police departments have always done throughout their history,' " he said. "They want everything."

Stephens wonders if committing millions of dollars to traditional beat cops really will affect crime more than, say, spending money to help combat drug abuse. "It's a terrible, terrible mistake to think more police officers are going to make a significant impact in the amount of crime in our community and you ignore the other things that lead to crime."

Meanwhile, even the staunchest advocates for more police are unlikely to back away from their commitment to lower the tax rate. Kersteen suggested Tuesday that unidentified administrative staff be cut to find money for more police. Williams only mentioned cutting "waste."

"I wish you would list where this waste is so we would know," responded Council Chairman Edward Cole.