The Tampa Police Department hosted a town hall meeting Tuesday evening as part of an initiative the agency’s new chief hopes will strengthen bonds between the department and the people it serves.
The first of what the department says will be multiple “Town Hall Tuesday” meetings was held at New Testament Worship Center in Grant Park in East Tampa. Officials said Police Chief Lee Bercaw was sick and unable to attend the inaugural event.
The meetings, part of the department’s community-oriented policing efforts, will be held in different parts of the city, police leaders said. Residents are invited to attend the meetings to connect with Bercaw, district commanders and officers who patrol that area of the city. The next meeting is planned for July 25.
“We’re able to come here and educate the community on what we’re doing, but also take questions to hear about the specifics of what’s going on in their community,” said Major Eric DeFelice, who is assigned to a section of the city that includes Grant Park.
“All the neighborhoods aren’t the same. They have specific needs,” he said. “And we need to take our resources and put them in places they need to be.”
Roughly 50 people gathered in the non-denominational church to hear from the police officers who work in their neighborhood and ask questions about the crime that affects the neighborhood and surrounding area.
One resident, Cody Fetherolf, 30, who has lived in the area for three years, spoke about what he described as “the trauma of getting to your house,” given the urban blight and presence of homeless people.
Another resident criticized the department for slow response times to shots being fired in the area, while Lois Davis, 64, was concerned about young kids and teenagers having access to firearms.
“How are the guns getting into the community?” she asked the panel, who responded that they’ve observed an “alarming number of kids” with access to guns, often obtaining them through car break-ins.
“We have a big problem with people stealing guns out of cars,” said Deputy Chief of Operations Michael Hutner.
According to Hutner, this year, from January to June, the city of Tampa experienced a 2% decrease in total crime, including a 7% decrease in violent crime, a 12% decrease in violent crime with a firearm and a 19% decrease in homicides compared to the same timeframe last year. There was, however, a 2% increase in nonfatal shootings, he said.
Hutner also offered specific data on District 3, which includes Grant Park.
“The law has changed recently, so we’ll be focused more on criminals with guns,” Hutner said, referring to a law allowing Floridians to carry guns without a permit or training that went into effect July 1.
Every cop is now a community-oriented police officer, a title that previously allowed a select group of officers to engage with the community more than the average cop would, Hutner said.
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“We have encouraged officers to get out of their patrol cars and meet with people on a personal level,” Hutner said. “You might see an officer playing basketball with a kid in the street or throwing the football. This is all a part of our community engagement.”