HCSO goes after criminal bad habits
By Mitch Traphagen
RUSKIN — The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has long held a philosophy of community policing. The principle is the very essence of law enforcement with deputies integrated into the communities they serve. With that integration comes knowledge — they know better what has — or perhaps will — happen that requires attention.
Community policing is, however, expensive. It requires a significant investment of time and manpower.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the crime rate in Hillsborough County has fallen every year since 2002. In 2007, Hillsborough County fell below the seven county Tampa Bay metro area average in crime rates per 100,000 people. While some forms of crime have increased recently, the numbers are far below those of the 1990s. And even those increases have only rarely been felt by the public at large. Considering the population influx of the past decade, coupled with the more recent wide-scale economic recession, law enforcement could reasonably be given credit for keeping the lid on crime in Hillsborough County.
If the current year numbers continue that general trend, a good part of the thanks can go to a subtle change in philosophy that is yielding good results. The HCSO is going after criminal bad habits.
“We’re not looking at the people that commit a single crime and that’s it,” HCSO Lt. Frank Greco said. “We’re going after the habitual offenders — the ones that produce the most results.”
In other words, the HCSO is keeping an eye on the relatively small number of people that commit most of the crimes.
“We’re hoping that it just won’t be comfortable for them to stay here,” Greco continued.
Community policing is still a priority for the HCSO as evidenced by the uniformed deputies and brass volunteering off-duty hours to schools, organizations and at local events. The new components are a subtle but important addition. One of those components is headed up by a man well-known in South County, but particularly in Sun City Center.
Sgt. Joe Burt, former Sun City Center resource deputy, is in charge of Street Crime Unit-A.
“The squad works on on-going street crime, criminal activity such as drugs, residential and vehicle burglaries and robberies and whatever else the Major (Ron Hartley) needs us to look at,” Sgt. Burt said. “We utilize everything from uniform presence to undercover surveillance.”
The details of the squad and the workings of the program itself are, by necessity, kept under wraps. The hope is, however, that deputies and detectives will arrive at the scene in time to catch criminals rather than responding after the fact. A good part of the investigation work is upfront rather than after a crime has already been committed.
Officers are not targeting or profiling, nor is it some fictionalized, futuristic system in which innocent citizens might accidentally become ensnared. The HCSO is simply using the information, and more specifically the data, they already have in an effort to fight crime at the source. They are hoping a more proactive approach to fighting the roots of crime will provide a safer environment for the general public — and for those who would otherwise become victims of crime.
“On a small scale, if you see a bunch of crimes then put a guy in jail and the crimes stop you know you’ve got your guy,” Sgt. Burt said. “If those crimes start again once he’s out of jail, we’ll know where to look.”
The sheriff’s office can only catch the bad guys — they can’t keep them in jail. It is up to the judicial system to determine if and for how long they will remain imprisoned. In the 1990s new efforts were made to curb the effect of habitual offenders and today virtually every state has laws on the books, frequently known as “three strikes laws”, to deal with them. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, an estimated six to eight percent of juveniles are responsible for 80 percent of all juvenile crime. In Florida, the State Attorney’s Office mentions one study that indicated 70 percent of all crime in the state was committed by 30 percent of the offenders. For law enforcement, that small number represents the very root of crime. The HCSO program is designed to join information and human resources to fight it.
“We are all working as a team,” said Sgt. Susan Bradford. “Since we’ve gone to intelligence policing, we’ve seen arrests go up. It’s working, but it’s really going back to good old-fashioned police work. It is a total team effort.”
The program ties together all facets of law enforcement in the District IV office in Ruskin, from information technology to detectives to uniformed deputies on the street. Sgt. Bradford’s detectives work with the Street Crimes Unit which works with the uniformed deputies. The never-ending goal is simply to protect and serve the public.
“We just want to get the bad guys,” Sgt. Bradford continued. “We work hard every day for that. We all have families at home, too.”