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A revolving door for suspects

When police walked into an east Tampa apartment on May 15, they found exactly what a search warrant had indicated: four rocks of crack cocaine.

Officers said the drugs belonged to 38-year-old Gregory Anderson, a man with an 18-page criminal record who has served four stints in state prison.

On that day in May, Anderson was arrested on two felony cocaine charges and taken to the county jail.

Anderson's arrest was part of a two-week east Tampa crime sweep dubbed "Operation Commitment" by city officials. It was exactly the kind of bust that officers wanted to make. The sweep marshaled police, code enforcement officers and drug abuse counselors for a coordinated effort to rid the troubled neighborhood of drugs, blight and criminals.

About a week after his arrest, Anderson, who has seven aliases, posted a $3,000 bail and walked out of jail.

Five days later, he was back. Police said Anderson threw bleach into the eyes of his child's mother, then tried to strangle the woman _ while the child watched.

A day after that arrest on felony aggravated battery and child abuse charges, Anderson was released again on his own recognizance.

Mayor Pam Iorio was shocked to hear that Anderson was released not once, but twice.

"If someone is selling drugs, that's a pretty serious offense," said Iorio, who made Operation Commitment one of her first initiatives as Tampa's mayor. "They should not be back on the street."

A St. Petersburg Times analysis of the 217 adults arrested on felony charges during Operation Commitment show that most are out of jail.

Of those adults arrested on felonies, 140 were released from jail either on bail, probation or their own recognizance, most before last Tuesday.

And 11 people arrested during the sweep _ which started May 12 _ were released and then arrested a second time, records show.

Take, James Gant of Tampa, for instance.

He was arrested May 22 for trying to buy cocaine. He was taken to jail and released on his own recognizance at 5:42 p.m. on June 20.

Six hours later, he was back in the county jail on domestic battery and cocaine delivery charges.

"I don't understand that," said Iorio, who added that the criminal justice system needs to back up the city's officers. "If the status quo creates a bad situation, then we need to change the status quo."

Gant, 42, who was arrested nine times in Hillsborough County before his May arrest, is in jail without bail for the recent charges.

These statistics infuriate officers, who often make an arrest, then see the alleged criminal quickly returning to the street, even when the person has previous convictions or is accused of a severe crime.

"It's not fair to the public and it's not fair to the taxpayers," said Sgt. Acy Akridge of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office.

Akridge, who was not involved in Operation Commitment, expressed frustration about the blitz of crime sweeps popular in the Tampa Bay area.

"You see this over and over," Akridge said. "There's a big sweep, we arrest all these people and everybody forgets about it. That's just the beginning."

In all, 448 people _ including 13 juveniles _ were arrested on misdemeanor and felony charges. Tampa police estimated that they spent 12,212 manpower hours on the sweep.

"I would never say our initiative wasn't successful," said Deputy Police Chief Tina Wright. "It's just unfortunate that the individuals we deal with are the individuals who commit the offenses over and over again. The court system has guidelines that they have to go by."

Since the sweep, police have maintained a presence in the neighborhood, said Wright.

No one expected that cleaning up east Tampa would be easy, Wright said. Or quick.

She said that the department has kept a higher-than-usual number of officers in the area and will soon branch out to make arrests in nearby neighborhoods, where some criminals have fled.

Officials also hope that residents do their part by calling police when they see criminal activity, and by reporting building code violations in their neighborhoods.

Iorio and top police officials say they will keep arresting and re-arresting the neighborhood criminals.

"Eventually the system works and they end up getting prison time," Wright said.

Judge Walter "Buzzy" Heinrich said he noticed that many of the people arrested during the sweep had prior criminal records.

"I see the same faces over and over again," he said. "The recidivism and repeat aspect doesn't surprise me at all, especially if they are drug cases."

Heinrich explained that some people with criminal records may be held in jail, unable to pay a high bail amount, for a few weeks after being arrested _ but bail may be lowered as charges are dropped or reduced in the lengthy court process.

While the process may frustrate some, experienced officers say they have to keep a few things in mind.

"People are entitled to due process," said Kevin Durkin, a former homicide detective and president of the West Central Florida Police Benevolent Association.

Nobody _ especially police officers _ expected everyone who was arrested during the sweep to stay in jail forever, Durkin said.

"It's not a negative reflection on the success," Durkin said. "It demonstrates the mayor's commitment as she took office, turning an issue into action."

City Council member and former police officer Kevin White, who represents the east Tampa area, said he's not surprised that many of the people arrested during the sweep are back on the street.

Operation Commitment was still a success, he said, because the neighborhoods in east Tampa improved. Code Enforcement tore down an abandoned building used by crack addicts and tagged and towed abandoned cars. And it disrupted the drug dealers, even temporarily.

"The community that was directly impacted showed significant change," said White. "There was a huge amount of support from the community, and the street level drug dealing has diminished."

Queen Miller, who lives on 25th Street, was thrilled when city officials said they would clean up east Tampa.

Before the sweep, the 76-year-old Miller would watch drug dealers and prostitutes from her front porch. She has seen fewer in the days since the sweep ended, but suspects much of the criminal activity has simply moved to another neighborhood.

"They've moved from one block to the next," said Miller. "The new mayor, I'm glad she did this. I hope she can keep the heat on."

_ Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Tamara Lush can be reached at 226-3373.

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