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The Buffer Zone

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image Inside the Hillsborough County Courthouse is a group of HCSO deputies who are unknown and unappreciated. And that is just what they want, it is a testament to their success. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Separation is defined by the sound of metal on metal

By Mitch Traphagen

TAMPA – The heavy steel door closed with a resounding thud and clank, leaving nothing to the imagination of its purpose. There are no keys to the door, no knob with which to open it. The door was operated from a heavily secured control room filled with television screens.On any given day hundreds of people hear that thud and clank as it closes behind them. At that point, they are no longer in control of their situation. They are the accused, preparing for their day in court, transported from jails to the courthouse, and, most often, returned to jail — all without incident.

The officers and staff of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office have cause to feel good. They make up one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the nation, protecting and serving one of the most populous counties in the nation, and they are coming out on top. Despite that the population is rising, despite an unsteady economy, the crime rate in Hillsborough County is falling, as it has been for the past several years. While the challenges are never-ending, while even one victim of crime is too many, based on the numbers, the crime statistics, the good guys are winning.

Buried in those numbers is a group of deputies few people ever hear about, few even know they exist or what they do. Yet day in and day out, they do their jobs under difficult circumstances and each day is another untold success story. The fact that few people know about them is, in fact, a testament to their success. They don’t make the news and that is the best possible news for everyone.

An average of 10,000 people enter the Hillsborough County Courthouse in downtown Tampa every business day. And on an average day, 250 to 400 people are transported from area jails for their day in court. The latter group must be kept under control at all times, and they must be kept separate from the lawyers, clerks, spectators, family members, jurors, judges and the thousands of other people who enter and go through a security check at the front door. Thousands of people and hundreds of accused criminals must peacefully co-exist in the courthouse every single day.

The public doesn’t know about the deputies who maintain that control or about the buffer zone created to keep the accused separate from those who have the ability to go home at night, and that is by design. That the deputies are unknown and unappreciated by the general population is what speaks most loudly of their success. They know their jobs, they perform them without incident, without problems or tragedies, and on the next day another 250 to 400 people come through again.

By and large, the hundreds transported from the jails every day are not parking ticket scofflaws or speeders. While some are petty thieves or others accused of seemingly minor crimes, there are also accused murderers and rapists, home invaders and drug dealers. For some, this is a way of life, as is finding ways to exploit or even break the system.

Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Jack Massaro scanned a list of names of the people he would be seeing that day. Men were highlighted in one color, women in another, juveniles in a third. A fourth color was used to highlight bits of information about some of the individuals: one man has gang ties, another is an escape risk.

The notes didn’t bother him. He has seen such faces before and he has heard the stories. Yet he takes nothing for granted. For some, rightly or wrongly, they have no problem risking everything because they no longer feel as though they have anything left to lose. But one thing was certain: on that day in the Hillsborough County Courthouse, the gang ties would mean nothing and there would be no escape.
“We don’t know what is coming up on the next day,” said HCSO Sgt. Joe Burt, one of the supervisors of the courthouse detail. The deputies get a printed list, often as thick as a paperback book, and they work from there with very little time to take a break or catch their breath.

Each person is, of course, an individual. Although they are awaiting their day in court, most of the people end up here because they had trouble living on the right side of the laws that we as a society have agreed to abide by. Many of them are people for whom being locked behind a heavy metal door that closes with a thud and a clank is just a part of life. They are people for whom their mobility must be constrained by handcuffs and chains and their every moment must be monitored. Unlike the thousands of people who come in through the front door, unlike the deputies, these are people who can’t simply go home at the end of the day. They may consider it a simple part of life but, in reality, it is a part in which someone else has complete control over them for the benefit and the protection of society.
Despite that, the respect and professionalism shown by the deputies is palpable. It could be argued that some, perhaps many, of those going through this tightly controlled system have long since given up their right to respect, but they get it anyway. That is how the HCSO operates. In one sense, that is a component of their success and is part of the reason the crime rate has been dropping. Community-based policing means respecting others, even if that person has been accused of a crime; even if, perhaps, they may not deserve it anymore.

The faces are unique, but as hundreds of people go through each day, they can blend into a certain sameness. The stories are unique to the individuals, too, but most of them are stories that have been told before.

Some are kept in a larger holding room; others have lost even that small privilege and are taken into smaller cells. In the cells, faint graffiti tells the stories: someone was from Ruskin, another from Riverview, graffiti created with a pencil stolen from a visiting attorney or from a chunk of plaster kicked off the wall. Etched into the paint, it is, perhaps, a perverse validation, something seemingly permanent, that says, “I was here.”

The cameras and the deputies see it all. They see the stolen pencils and the graffiti in progress. They see the faces, some revealing anger, some fear and perhaps, most frighteningly, some revealing nothing at all. Every so often, however, the story does indeed diverge and they’ll see someone with their head down in prayer. Not everything is a lost cause in this system. In such cases in particular, the deputies’ respect becomes part of a solution.

“They are here because of probable cause,” Sgt. Burt continued. “It’s up to the jury to decide if they are guilty.”

A man in handcuffs with chains and shackles on his feet shuffles into the holding room. The steel door thuds and clanks closed behind him. He is escorted towards a smaller cell off the main room and is given a plastic bag of fruit juice and a sandwich wrapped in cellophane.

“It’s nutritious,” said Sgt. Burt, possibly inferring that was the best that could be said of it. Of course, that was the important thing, pleasing a palette was of lesser concern.

The deputies working in the courthouse are both professional and tough. Day in and day out, they often see the worst that life has to offer in people who have made poor choices both for themselves and for innocent victims. They see the chains and the shackles, and the effects of time spent in jails etched on faces and in crude tattoos. They see the confusion, anger and fear in the faint graffiti. They see many of them as they come to face a judge, and then again as they are returned to jail. It is story without end. The next day there will be different people but the same challenges. They will take in hundreds of people from area jails, get them safely into a courtroom and back out again, without incident, without drama, without the public even having to think about it. It begins with a printed list, the names of men highlighted in one color, women in another, and juveniles in a third. While the rules of society has determined they must be kept separate until a judge and jury have their say, they will still be treated humanely and with respect. For the deputies, there is nothing to lose in doing so and sometimes the story doesn’t always end the same. Sometimes there is still hope.

“Seeing the young people is hard,” Sgt. Burt said. “For some of them, this is already their way of life.”

But Sgt. Burt with decades of law enforcement experience, and a professional and experienced staff all know firsthand that things can and do change. They are able to come to work each day because they know and they believe that not everything is a lost cause. They’ve seen the people in the cells waiting for their day in court, they’ve seen the heads bent down in prayer.

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