Crime falls sharply in South Hillsborough
HCSO Major credits deputies, public, sheriff, in crime reduction; lowest rate in county
By Mitch Traphagen
RUSKIN — “This is something to feel good about,” Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Major Ronald Hartley said. “We cut our crime rate almost 50 percent over a four-year period.”
Crime is trending downward across Hillsborough County. But the reduction in crime has been steepest in South Hillsborough, the fastest growing part of the county. The HCSO District IV encompasses an area roughly from Brandon south to the Manatee County line and east to Polk County. It is an enormous area with more than 240,000 people — no part of Hillsborough County has seen comparable growth.
And yet no part of Hillsborough has seen a comparable reduction in crime.
In 2006, 10,283 crimes were reported in South Hillsborough. In 2010, with thousands of additional people living in the area, 5,812 crimes were reported. The downward trend has only picked up steam.
“We are down 19 percent for the year,” Hartley said of HCSO District IV. “In the entire county, we are down 16 percent.”
The Tampa Bay area has been reeling with the deaths of three St. Petersburg police officers within a one-month period. That news could lead anyone to believe that crime is rampant and getting worse. It could cause people to believe the bad guys are winning.
“The bad guys aren’t winning,” Hartley said. “The good guys are winning.”
To Major Hartley, the good guys are not only the deputies who report to him, but also the numerous citizen organizations that volunteer their time to make a difference.
“I think one of the big reasons [for the drop in the crime rate] down here is our working relationship with the public,” he said. “The Sun City Center Security Patrol, I love ’em. The Citizens Patrol, Crime Watch, Neighborhood Watch, you combine all these things together with the autonomy Sheriff [David] Gee gives district commanders and we can see the results. We go out and solve the problem. The Citizens Patrol is among the most effective in the county. We try to keep ourselves engaged with the public. People down here are not afraid to become involved in things. If they see something, they are not bashful about calling it in.”
Compared to 2009, crime last year was down in all categories except for murder. Last year there were nine murders in South Hillsborough, up one from the year before.
“We had two murders that were cases of mistaken identities,” Hartley said. “Homicide is a crime that is very difficult to control or predict.”
According to Hartley, homicide is something that rarely touches the lives of people who don’t do illegal drugs, have an abusive spouse or have a lifestyle that introduces them to dangerous elements on a regular basis. For people who avoid such things, “Your chances of getting murdered are virtually none,” he said.
From last year alone, robbery is down nearly 44 percent, sexual assaults are down more than 22 percent and vehicle theft is down nearly 29 percent. And all the while, the population continues to grow in South Hillsborough.
“We use our resources and direct them towards the things causing our crime,” Hartley continued. “It kind of goes back to old time police work. We go out and get the bad guy. The Sheriff has also given district commanders the autonomy to work projects and direct resources to where we determine our problems are. My problems in District IV are not the same as the problems in District I. We are addressing issues that have a direct impact on our citizens. We are focusing on the criminal element. About six percent of the people are doing 80 percent of the crime. When you knock them out, you have put a dent into criminal activity.”
A big part of that dent involves a new program that compiles information from all sources to try to stop crime as it happens, rather than after the fact.
“We have crime analysts here that gather information, we have an intelligence unit that works for us,” Hartley said. “We get information from the public, we get information from the street deputies and we put it all together. We do the analysis to try to predict where crime might occur. We look at the trends to see what might be going on.”
While the public has reason to feel good about the reduction in crime, the past several months have been deadly for law enforcement officers not only in St. Petersburg but also in Florida and across the nation. Despite it being a problem that hits close to home, Hartley takes a pragmatic approach.
“In every class [of new deputies] someone will ask, ‘What if we pull a guy over, he just shot his wife or his coworkers and no one knows about it yet?’ My answer to them is, ‘You are probably going to get shot.’ We can run the plates but we have no idea who he is and what he has done. We try to teach you how to stay alive. If you do what you are trained to do, there’s a good chance you’ll survive. Every time a deputy walks up to a car, they have no idea what is going on. The person inside knows but the deputy doesn’t know.”
“You rely on your training and your instinct. All we can do is train people to do the best job they can, tell them to be aware, to be cognizant of their surroundings and don’t take unnecessary chances. What happened over there — there are suspicious confrontations every day. Sometimes they just go bad.”
On Hartley’s crisp, white shirt, his badge was covered in a black band and the flag outside flew at half-mast in honor of SPPD officer David Crawford, shot while on-duty February 22. While he mourns a fallen officer, he also sees the potential aftereffects and guards against it.
“What happened over in St. Petersburg is absolutely tragic, but it can’t become us versus them,” he said referring to law enforcement and the public.
Hartley is committed to the people in the community he serves. He strongly encourages deputies to get involved in their communities — whether through youth sports programs or charitable events. At any community function, you will find one of his deputies in attendance and usually on their own time. He wants people to call with problems or concerns and is happy that the residents of South Hillsborough feel comfortable doing so.
“Many of the calls are quality of life issues, not hard crime issues,” he said. “But I would much rather hear about that rather than rape, robbery, murder, auto theft.”
For residents in South Hillsborough, quality of life issues have increasingly become the major concerns. Crime is down and Hartley is committed to keeping it down. Although the criminal element is difficult to control, the success in reducing crime over the past four years has done much to move quality of life issues to the forefront.
Hartley gives the credit for the success to his deputies, to the public and to his boss, Sheriff David Gee. But in South Hillsborough, which not only saw the steepest reduction in crime but also went from having one of the highest crime rates to the lowest crime rate in the county, it is clear that much of the success has come from the top. Through his office, Major Ron Hartley not only keeps his eyes and ears open, he also keeps his door open. “To Protect and Serve” is not just a phrase to him. Both words are his mission. u