TAMPA — Tampa City Council members gave their backing Thursday to a new crime initiative that will replace a controversial police program that reported tenants who were arrested to their landlords.
Council members in September had joined civil rights groups in expressing concern about the Tampa Police Department’s Crime Free Multi Housing program after a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that officers sent hundreds of notices encouraging landlords to evict tenants based on arrests, including some in which charges were later dropped.
Among their concerns was that the program was based on arrests, not convictions, and that whole families could be evicted for the arrest of one household member.
Interim Police Chief Ruben Delgado on Thursday confirmed to council members that officers will no longer inform landlords about the arrests of their tenants. He presented details of a replacement program that will operate citywide and is aimed at reducing crime in neighborhoods, businesses, apartment complexes and condominiums.
Council members welcomed the change.
“(It) really put police officers in a bad position that, in my opinion, they didn’t sign up to do, and I think that was a big issue,” said Council member Luis Viera. “You’re dealing with allegations as opposed to convictions. I think that our city should have no formal part in such a program.”
The Safety Awareness for Everyone program, or SAFE, that Delgado is launching this month 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.
The new dashboard shows the location, date and description of each police call but will not list the names and addresses of those arrested. Residents who want more information can request a police arrest or incident report.
“Whether you live in an apartment community or live in a subdivision, the goal is the same … to reduce crime in those neighborhoods and give them the same quality of life,” Delgado said.
The police department launched its crime-free housing program in 2013 after officers learned about it from colleagues in the Orlando Police Department. Both cities’ programs were mostly modeled on one launched in Mesa, Ariz., in 1992, which has been adopted in roughly 2,000 communities.
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At its peak, about 100 apartment complexes were enrolled in Tampa’s program. Three-quarters of them were in neighborhoods where U.S. Census block data shows the majority of residents are Black and Hispanic.
Officers sent hundreds of letters to landlords encouraging them to evict tenants. Roughly 90 percent of those reported were Black tenants.
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.
Participation by landlords was voluntary, but those 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.
The department operated the program less aggressively in the past four years, sending fewer letters to landlords and toning down wording that instructed landlords to take action. The number of properties taking part dwindled to 42 this year.
James Shaw, an attorney who has worked with the American Civil Liberties Union on police issues, expressed concern that the addendums could still be used to evict residents based on arrests.
“The Tampa Police Department let that genie out of the bottle,” he said to council members. “That’s for you to clean that up.”
Council members in September asked the Bay Area Apartment Association to reach out to its members who were part of the crime-free program. Eric Garduño, the association’s government affairs director, said he had been in touch with the management or owners of about 10 properties. Most did not use the police addendum, but had language in leases that allowed them to evict any resident who was a threat to the safety of others, he said.
Property managers told him that the most important part of the program was the opportunity for building a strong relationship with police officers on the beat, he said.
“If that’s part of the new program, then there will be interest,” he said.