By Mitch Traphagen
RIVERVIEW — A heavy squall had just passed leaving a wet heaviness in the air. The traffic on this busy Riverview corner was unabated, however. It was just after midnight and a group of young men wearing jeans, t-shirts and baseball caps gathered under the overhang of a drive-thru bank. No one seemed to notice. No one except for the late-night cleaning guy inside the bank. He stopped and stared for a moment with only mild curiosity at the four men huddled together near the teller window. One of the men, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Girard, pulled out a badge from under his t-shirt. The cleaning man went back to his work without so much as a nod. Just another night in Florida.
Sergeant Joe Burt distributed sheets of paper with information and photographs to the the four undercover officers. He briefed them on their target — the kind of car he drove and an analysis of how he was expected to behave. They probably knew their target better than his friends and parents did. They didn’t know exactly where or when he would strike next but they knew he would. At least until he got caught.
The four officers scattered around that busy intersection in unmarked vehicles. They weren’t the run-of-the-mill unmarked patrol cars, they were the kind of vehicles that allowed them to park in plain sight, yet still be invisible. And for a long night, that is exactly what they did.
Behind a closed door at the HCSO District IV office in Ruskin is a dimly lit room filled with glowing computer screens. A handful of people work inside the room; they looked up with some surprise when the door opened and a stranger walked in accompanied by a sheriff’s deputy. They don’t get many visitors in that room. The people at work inside are trying to get one step ahead of crime. They aren’t spying on you or your neighbors, they are trying to keep tabs on the bad guys. They are looking into the past to figure out the future. They want to know what the bad guys will do next — and to whom they will do it.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Street Crimes Unit is an effort that ties together all facets of old-fashioned police work. They use information from the deputies on the street, investigations from detectives, and the data in their computers in an attempt to get a handle on crime. It is old-fashioned law enforcement in almost every sense, except for the advanced technology and the philosophy behind the unit. They don’t simply want to investigate crimes that have already occurred. They want to know where crimes are going to occur and be there to put an end to it. One perp at a time if necessary.
At 2 a.m., traffic is still flowing at a brisk pace along the Riverview thoroughfare. The undercover officers were focused on one business that the analysis indicated might be the next victim of the man they sought. He had recently been released from jail and, shortly after his release, a series of break-ins began to occur. The break-ins were scattered around Hillsborough County but the HCSO analysis had detected a pattern. The Street Crimes Unit narrowed the possibilities to a few locations and rolled the dice on one of them. The sheriff’s office has suffered from the economic recession and reduced budgets along with everyone else in the state. They simply didn’t have the resources to cover every location.
On that night, there could not have been a safer corner in all of Florida. While they were focused on a specific business, all of the undercover officers kept their eyes open for anything and everything. None of the men were rookies and all have long since learned to expect the unexpected.
The end result was that, without knowing it, more than a dozen businesses and hundreds of people passing through that intersection and shopping at a nearby 24-hour superstore were protected on that night. Nothing bad could have happened there without an immediate and forceful response. From a public relations standpoint, the undercover officers might have left cards at each of the many businesses in that area saying, “We were here tonight. You are safe.” It would have been a powerful message to let the public know that those officers were there for them, to protect and to serve. But they couldn’t do that. They don’t advertise themselves. They need to remain in the background, hidden in plain sight, to be effective.
On the surface, the Street Crimes Unit is right off the screen from a prime-time television police drama. It is cool technology and investigative work coupled with undercover cops staking out and putting away the bad guys. Most deputies would privately admit that it is a prominent and exciting assignment. The reality, of course, is always different than the perception. The officers in the unit are required to adapt to a highly varied schedule. They work days through much of the week and then possibly overnight on their next shift. Weekend plans are difficult to make because their weekends are often determined by what the analysis reveals about the latest bad guys they are tracking. It is not a nine-to-five job.
Overnight stake outs are just that — long nights sitting behind the wheel of cars waiting and watching. Something might happen, but perhaps not. Even with their advanced investigative work, there is no certainty. And again, there is the need to be prepared for the unexpected. Overnight stakeouts are events spent on edge, ever vigilant, fueled by coffee; but without bathroom breaks. The undercover officers can’t leave their cars or their posts for even a minute to answer the call of nature, because that is a minute in which they could miss something. Or, it could be a minute in which they might be noticed by the bad guy.
At 4 a.m., with the bars closed, traffic begins to lighten. People continue to shop at the 24-hour superstore, entering and then leaving the store with their just purchased cereal, shaving cream and cheap toys (for their children, hopefully asleep at that hour). Four in the morning in a 24-hour superstore is decidedly not the Florida people see in the tourist ads. At that store, on that corner, no one has the slightest idea that nearby are four highly experienced undercover officers waiting and expecting to stop a crime in progress.
From behind the wheel of an inexpensive and not perfectly clean imported car built earlier in the decade, HCSO Corporal Bob LaBarge pulls out a pair of night vision goggles. Through the goggles, the bank drive-thru where they met a few hours ago lit up like the sun; and the dark shrubs and weeds on the nearby corner glowed as if bathed in an alien daylight. Certainly, there was no one hiding in wait to rob the late night cereal and shaving cream shoppers. The goggles were expensive, and they were purchased with money from LaBarge’s own pocket. Like most officers in the sheriff’s office, investing in the job is worthwhile. They live here, too. Their kids live here. And they want to protect you as they would protect their own families.
Traffic began to pick up again at 5 a.m. as the morning shift workers and the Type-A personalities began the rush to their jobs. Watching it unfold throughout a long night, there is a remarkably fine line between the closing-the-bar crowd and the stressed-out office workers getting an early jump on the workday. They only barely avoid each other, although perhaps sometimes they do with tragic results.
By 6 a.m., traffic was flowing with the normal heaviness found everywhere in Tampa Bay; and the four undercover officers decided to pull the plug. The bad guy didn’t show. But in the end, he didn’t get away, either. He was arrested in South Hillsborough eight hours later on suspicion of a crime. The Street Crimes officers would have preferred to have caught him in the act, but they caught him nonetheless. Almost certainly, there will be a next time.
As silently and discretely as they spent the night on that busy intersection in Riverview, the four undercover officers disappeared into the morning. In a few hours, they would be back at work. And on another night, perhaps tonight, somewhere on an intersection in South Hillsborough, people and businesses will be more safe than they can possibly imagine — bad guys will be less so. Someone out there, hiding in plain site, is anticipating the bad guy’s moves; and they want nothing more than to stop him.
A bad guy, getting cuffed, might think the cops got lucky; or that he was simply unlucky. The truth is, they were waiting for him. They were expecting him.