1. Opinion

Ruth: Smart strategy shift by Tampa police

Last year, the City Council of the North Florida metropolis of Waldo voted to excommunicate its own Police Department following a long-festering scandal involving a speeding ticket scam by officers that in one year alone produced 12,000 dubious citations and more than $400,000 in ill-gotten fines.

Welcome to Waldo-on-the-Bay, where Tampa police officers took law enforcement-by-quota to an entirely new level. As the Tampa Bay Times Alexandra Zayas reported, since 2001 officers were under pressure to write more tickets if they want to look good on their annual performance reviews.

Tampa police officers last year issued more tickets than their counterparts in the sheriff's offices of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco Counties — combined. And the Tampa Police Department made more arrests than any other law enforcement agency in the state of Florida, which would suggest the city of Tampa is awash in a crime spree that makes Prohibition-era Chicago look like Brigadoon.

Tampa's preoccupation with reciting the Miranda warning hasn't been so much about crime and punishment. It's assembly-line law enforcement. It's a wonder officers haven't filed workers compensation claims for hand cramps from writing all those citations.

The move to turn the TPD into justice-by-quota began under Chief Bennie Holder and continued through the administrations of Stephen Hogue and the recently retired Jane Castor. The numbers looked great on paper, with crime rates declining, while the TPD heralded its get tough record. But when approximately 50 percent of the TPD's state-leading arrests in 2007 were for the high crime of "miscellaneous" it was probably the tip-off the city's bad guy stats were suspect.

Who would have ever guessed Tampa residents were caught up in a crime spree of "miscellaneous" being perpetrated at all hours of the day and night?

Paint-by-numbers law enforcement created a situation where many officers felt compelled to meet their quotas, often at the expense of doing the real work of policing by getting to know and be trusted in the community.

New Chief Eric Ward grew up in Tampa, and he knew a little bit about becoming a prime suspect for "miscellaneous." And perhaps that explains, along with a strong dose of common sense, why Ward offered up a rather revolutionary approach to policing when he took office: Forget about filling a quota. Go be cops.

Ward is a big believer in community policing, a concept also favored by St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway. The idea is simple. Park the patrol car. Walk your beat. Interact with people. Listen to them. Shoot some hoops with the kids in the park. Have coffee with a grandmother.

Do all of that and a bond eventually forms, so that when a real crime occurs (and it will) the officers can tap into a reservoir of goodwill rather than a well of mistrust. That's what it means to be a cop.

By the standards imposed by his predecessors, Ward might be judged as less than productive in his tenure as chief. After all, the TPD is well on track this year to have issued the fewest number of tickets in the last 10 years. In fact, under Ward's still-evolving rubric measuring an officer's productivity, the number of tickets issued isn't even counted.

You could make the argument what Ward is recognizing the men and women under his command don't go into law enforcement to become quota-filling bean-counters with badges. They become officers because they want to make a difference in their community.

What an arresting concept