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In Gulfport, a scooter-driving, armed retiree patrols the streets

Al Santos, 67, carries a map, a notebook, tactical flashlights, pepper spray and semiautomatic pistols — a .45 and a .38 — on each hip for his volunteer patrols but says that when he sees something suspicious, his first move is to notify the police.
Al Santos, 67, carries a map, a notebook, tactical flashlights, pepper spray and semiautomatic pistols — a .45 and a .38 — on each hip for his volunteer patrols but says that when he sees something suspicious, his first move is to notify the police.
Published Dec. 16, 2014

GULFPORT

The raucous crowds inside O'Maddy's Bar and Grille don't seem to notice the man on the scooter idling outside.

He sits at a stop sign just past where the blue bar light spills onto the sidewalks of Shore Boulevard.

His orange reflective vest bears a homemade label: "Citizen on Patrol. Private Volunteer."

He carries a map, a notebook, tactical flashlights, pepper spray and semiautomatic pistols — a .45 and a .38 — on each hip.

Al Santos is Gulfport's self-appointed night watchman.

They may not know it, but he is there to protect them.

• • •

Santos, 67, drives a red 400cc scooter five nights a week, two hours and 20 miles each night, circling the city in search of bad behavior, broken streetlights and anything else that appears amiss.

"I just try to do my help to make the community a safer place," he said, his voice a deep Southern drawl. "My duty is to protect the public and provide for public safety."

He took an interest in law enforcement after the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn. Santos said he couldn't abide such senseless violence in quiet communities.

When he tried to sign up for the Citizens' Police Academy last summer, the class was full. So, Santos said, he got to thinking: I can just do that on my own.

"I said why not. I mean, I can go out. I can watch. I can see. I ride around on my scooter anyway."

He wears a black leather jacket and rugged jeans, looks like a big buoy bobbing over Gulfport's rutted streets. His scruffy gray beard is just a shade darker than the silver helmet he wears for safety. The brim squishes up against his oval eyeglasses.

He carries his guns in concealed holsters. Santos said he has a concealed-weapons permit.

A retired electrical engineer with bad knees and diabetes, he is likely the closest thing the artsy community on Boca Ciega Bay has to a caped crusader.

• • •

Gulfport's volunteer crime watch is not affiliated with the Police Department. Chief Robert Vincent said he won't throw his weight behind an organization unless he can vouch for the members' training, equipment and policies. That would require money his department does not have.

Still, a police officer shares basic information with the volunteers at each monthly meeting, and Vincent has some general advice. "They're simply eyes and a phone," the chief said. "They should not be interacting with anybody."

Ernie Stone, the 67-year-old leader of the crime watch group, shares that view.

"I don't want our crime watch to end up being a crime watch group that would be involved with something like George Zimmerman," Stone said.

Zimmerman is the former neighborhood watch coordinator in Sanford who fatally shot teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012.

About 60 people are part of the watch, including Santos, but only a few actually patrol, none as often as he does. They do so separately from the crime watch program, on their own time.

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The police chief said he hasn't gotten any complaints about Santos.

"I believe that the community is a safer place because I'm here doing what I do, and I add to their safety," Santos said. Though some people "may feel threatened by" his work, he describes himself as "an old-style person" who supports the Second Amendment.

"This country was founded on guns and religion," he said, "and that's what I believe in."

• • •

The broad scooter thrums underneath Santos. His blinkers squawk as he leans into turns.

The digital thermometer on his tiny dashboard reads 52 degrees, but it feels colder with the wind rushing past. Santos is a lifelong Floridian. He wears thin gloves and thick socks.

He is not out for pleasure. "I'm an old man," he said. "I don't have any fun anymore."

For years he rode motorcycles, and though he likes being on the scooter, his nightly patrols are not joy rides. Santos has a purpose. He is a veteran, a registered voter, an American and a proponent of the Constitution.

"It's patriotism," Santos said. "I've always been a patriot."

The killings in Colorado and Connecticut were just a catalyst. After that, Santos began to practice defensive shooting on his own. Now he carries his pistols everywhere he can, in case the thing he prays never happens does.

"At 10 feet, I can keep my bullets within the size of a softball," he said. If ever in a position where he had to stand his ground, he expects, he'd fire at least two shots.

"I'm not going out looking to confront anybody. I'm not looking for trouble," Santos said. "But if trouble finds me, I'm ready."

• • •

The patrols aren't going to stop a mass shooting, he acknowledges. Those are too random, the culprits often too far off the grid.

Still, Santos' nightly rides are an extension of his effort to make Gulfport safer.

He sees a lot of tomcats in the street, has called in drunken drivers and potholes. In his logbook, he noted two "youths" riding their bicycles in the skate park, which was prohibited on that day of the week. He reminded the boys of the rules.

"I don't crack down on them too much," Santos said. "I don't want to ruin their day, and they're not really causing any problems."

Sometimes he'll park for 10 minutes on Gulfport Boulevard or the Pinellas Trail and watch for trouble. When Santos spots a parked vehicle with open windows, he drops his Citizen on Patrol card on the dashboard with a note about burglaries.

"If I see somebody suspicious, I'm not going to follow them," Santos said. "I'm going to call the police."

His wife, Cyndi, stays at home with their four cats. She does not wait up.

• • •

The patrol takes Santos around the perimeter of the city. He knows which red lights to avoid because his scooter isn't big enough to trigger sensors that turn them green. He knows which houses have safety lights and comments on the wattage of his favorites.

He checks the Boca Ciega Yacht Club and scans the Beachway Mobile Park, where a Canadian flag flies next to the stars and stripes for snowbirds. Office manager and resident Jan Mahony, 73, said Santos showed up last summer after a series of break-ins. She appreciates having "extra eyes out there."

Santos putters past busy downtown Gulfport, by the La Cote Basque Winehouse where he and his wife once dined and he "had to ask them what (he) was eating." He prefers the taco salad from Taco Bell or the fish sandwich from Salem's, where he eats every Friday.

He passes Boca Ciega High School — never going on the grounds because guns are prohibited there — and spots a white sedan driving along a small road beside the building.

"I wonder what he's doing there," Santos said.

He pulls off across the street and watches in his side mirror. The white car turns onto 58th Street S. Santos waits. He throttles up. "No cause for undue suspicion," he said.

The Citizen on Patrol chuckles and drives off into the night.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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