Tampa police replace Crime Free program, will no longer tell landlords about tenant arrests

Tampa Police Department is preparing to launch a city-wide “SAFE” initiative that will not include controversial elements of its Crime Free housing program.
Meridian Apartments on N 50th Street in Tampa is one of about 100 apartment complexes that participated in Tampa Police Department's Crime-Free Multi Housing program.
Meridian Apartments on N 50th Street in Tampa is one of about 100 apartment complexes that participated in Tampa Police Department's Crime-Free Multi Housing program. [ CHRISTOPHER O'DONNELL | Times ]
Published Dec. 1, 2021|Updated Dec. 1, 2021

TAMPA — Police officers in Tampa will no longer send notices to landlords detailing the arrests of their tenants, interim Police Chief Ruben Delgado said Wednesday.

The notices were part of the Tampa Police Department’s Crime Free Multi Housing program, an anti-crime initiative in apartment complexes that police have operated since 2013.

The department came under fire from the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP and other civil rights groups after a Tampa Bay Times investigation in September revealed that officers sent hundreds of letters that encouraged landlords to evict tenants based on arrests, including some in which charges were later dropped.

The investigation also showed that officers reported tenants after arrests for misdemeanor crimes, the arrest of juveniles and arrests that happened away from the landlords’ properties. Roughly 90 percent of people reported were Black tenants, records show.

Related: Tampa police called for hundreds to be evicted. Entire families lost their homes.

In its place, the city is launching a crime prevention initiative aimed at neighborhoods, businesses, apartments and condominiums, Delgado said. The program is expected to begin this month.

Tampa police Assistant Chief Ruben "Butch" Delgado.
Tampa police Assistant Chief Ruben "Butch" Delgado. [ Tampa Police Department ]

The Safety Awareness for Everyone program, or SAFE, merges existing neighborhood watches, the crime-free program and Business Watch Tampa. It will include an online dashboard where residents, landlords and business owners can track police activity close to their properties and make anonymous tips about crime.

Delgado denied that his department is dismantling the crime-free program, describing it as an “opportunity to re-engage apartment communities.”

“Our whole goal from the beginning in neighborhood watch, or even in the apartment communities, was to partner with the communities and try to provide the safest environment we could for all citizens throughout the city,” Delgado said. “That philosophy hasn’t changed.”

The new dashboard shows the location, date and description of each call. “It could be loud music; it could be a stabbing,” Delgado said.

But unlike notices in the crime-free program, the portal will not list the names and addresses of those arrested. It will include a link for residents who want to request a police arrest or incident report. Under Florida’s public records law, those reports already are available to every resident.

The initiative also will replace monthly emails sent to neighborhood watch members that detailed police activity in their communities, said Delgado.

Related: Tampa City Council asks police for roadmap for future role in eviction program

At its peak, about 100 apartment complexes were enrolled in the crime-free program. Three-quarters of them were in neighborhoods where U.S. Census block data shows the majority of residents are Black and Hispanic.

Participation was voluntary, but landlords who took part were encouraged to make tenants sign a lease addendum stating they could be evicted if they or any household member or guest were involved in criminal activity.

Four days after the Times story published, Mayor Jane Castor announced that police will inform landlords only of “certain serious drug and violent felonies.” Also, a police captain must sign off on notices, and landlords will be notified only of arrests that happen on their properties.

Despite that, City Council members expressed concern during a September meeting that police were pushing a program that could result in a whole family being evicted following the arrest of one household member. They asked Delgado to report back by Dec. 2 and address those concerns, which the chief expects to do at Thursday’s Council meeting.

Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough NAACP, said she’s pleased that police will stop sending letters to landlords, but said the city should make amends for families who lost their homes through the program.

”It sounds to me like they have decided this was not the best program,” said Lewis. “How do you go about fixing that and righting that wrong? Something needs to be done.”

A media alert announcing the city’s initiative also questioned the accuracy of the Times investigation.

The Tampa City Attorney’s Office looked at 529 notices of arrest provided to property managers participating in the program over the past five years, the alert said, and found only eight corresponding eviction notices filed in court.

“The Tampa Bay Times published an article that incorrectly implied hundreds of tenants had been evicted because landlords were notified of tenants’ arrests through that program,” the statement said.

But the Times investigation was based on records provided by the police department dating back to 2013. The city’s analysis would not include the first three years of the program, when officers used a database to track offenders flagged to landlords.

During that period, officers recorded more than 300 tenants as “evicted” on the database.

Also, the majority of notices sent to landlords were for someone living with the registered tenant, so the names would not match in court documents. And in many cases, families moved out when they received a notice to vacate or were told to do so by the landlord — before the matter went to court.

The police analysis was done by Chief Assistant City Attorney Ursula Richardson. City of Tampa communications director Adam Smith declined a request Tuesday for the Times to interview her.