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Residents take to streets as visible deterrent

(ran North, South editions)

Dogs barked, and people peered out from open doors and windows. Some folks waved. Others came out to join the crowd strolling through Virginia City.

Two dozen people walked the streets last week behind a patrol car with its lights flashing. Kids on bicycles weaved among the procession.

The evening of Dec. 29 was a mix of occasions: a celebration of victory, a show of strength, a social event.

"It's more or less to let the drug dealers and people like that know that we're around and we're watching out," said 73-year-old Merle Bunnell, who has lived in the neighborhood with his wife since 1996.

Some of those who did deal drugs among these modest homes are gone now. Many people credit a reduction in area crime recently to a renewed partnership with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

"They've gotten rid of a lot, and they're still getting rid of more," said Walter Bratka, president of the Virginia City Security Patrol. "They've done a fantastic job keeping it clean."

Deputy Chris Thomas began working the neighborhood 13 months ago. A member of the sheriff's community policing team, Thomas has become a familiar face here.

Sheriff's officials say the number of calls to the agency _ people reporting crimes or otherwise needing attention from deputies _ from Virginia City has decreased by about 70 percent since Thomas arrived.

It is a measure of his success, and perhaps a reason for it, that people here know him by his first name. Many tell "Chris" things they would be more hesitant to tell the "real police."

"They realize that we're human beings and we're friendly and we're here to help," Thomas said. "I think it works pretty good that way."

Unlike other deputies, Thomas is not responsible for running from call to call. Instead, his job is to stick around, to talk to people and to listen.

"Not arresting people, just being out there and being visible," Thomas said, "and trying to help."

Former security patrol president Wayne Roberts says that makes a difference.

"The sheriff's department used to come in here and say, "Sorry, we didn't see it, we can't do nothing about it,' and out the door they'd go," Roberts said. "We have more support from the sheriff's department since he's been in here than we ever did."

Thomas works closely with other units within the Sheriff's Office.

Earlier this year, he helped narcotics detectives make several drug dealing arrests. Afterward, the undercover detectives wore masks to protect their identities as they accepted certificates of appreciation from the security patrol.

Neighborhood leaders hope for more progress this year. Thomas plans to keep working at it.

"It's rewarding," he said. "You're kind of part of these people's lives. That's good."

Steve Thompson covers crime in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6245, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245. His e-mail address is sthompsonsptimes.com.

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