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Arrests in Port Richey up sharply over 2001

Things have been busy down at the Port Richey Police Department.

Forget all the politics whirling around the department _ the budget battles, the citizens groups, the petitions, the effort to eliminate the department and bring in the Sheriff's Office.

Just plain old arrests have officers hopping in the Little City by the River.

In 2000, the department arrested 344 people. In 2001, 385 were put in handcuffs. This year, with more than a month to go, officers had made 636 arrests as of late in the week, a 65 percent increase over the total for 2001.

The biggest reason for the jump sits at U.S. 19 and Ridge Road, where retailer Wal-Mart opened a supercenter in March 2001 on land that used to be an abandoned strip mall. About one in every four arrests in the city this year was at Wal-Mart.

But police Chief Bill Downs said there are other reasons for officers making a lot more arrests.

"I'm not going to put this all on Wal-Mart," Downs said. More aggressive patrols and officers targeting "quality of life" offenses such as public drinking have also contributed, he said.

In 2001, the City Council changed Port Richey city code to make having an open container of alcohol in public a criminal, rather than civil, infraction. "We're going to keep at it until it's fully under control," Downs said. "We run the gamut with increases in all kinds of arrests."

But Wal-Mart can't be ignored.

A Times analysis in May found that Wal-Mart's opening has led to slower response times to minor, nonemergency calls, and some services, like traffic enforcement, being reduced to account for more shoplifting calls to Wal-Mart.

Before September's budget battles, officers routinely worked extended overtime to help with the onslaught of calls. However, with little extra money in the budget, overtime has been all but eliminated. The city manager now has to approve any overtime. Compensatory time, giving officers time off instead of overtime pay, was eliminated.

Downs also has dealt with losing some of his 14-member department. An officer was injured when he was hit by a car, another was injured in an off-duty car crash and a third was called for military duty.

And then, for nearly three months, debate raged among city residents and politicians over whether the department should be abolished. That effort stalled _ perhaps permanently _ on Tuesday, when Phyllis Grae said she has changed her mind and shifted the council majority to keeping the department.

During it all, Downs said, officers kept doing their jobs.

"The morale has been positive all the way through," he said. "They (the officers) know they were doing a good job and the public has supported them."

_ Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waitesptimes.com.

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