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Tampa PD expands business watch program into downtown

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

A Tampa Downtown Partnership breakfast on homelessness last October was the spark. The conversation that began there ultimately led to the creation of a program between the Tampa Police Department and the downtown business establishment announced today, designed to make the area a safer place to live, work and play.

That meeting at the University Club last fall was a relatively sanguine affair until its conclusion, when a few business owners complained that there were still problems with their employees being harassed by some members of the homeless.

After the meeting, local businesswoman Cheryl Parrish reached out to Tampa Police officer Sean Mahabir, who was responsible for developing and implementing a business watch program in Ybor City back in 2011. That program established an information-sharing network between merchants and local law enforcement that emphasizes community policing.

Four months later, a downtown business watch program between the Tampa Police Department and downtown businesses was officially announced on Wednesday inside the headquarters of TECO in downtown Tampa.

“The cops can’t fix every problem. They can’t catch every criminal. We’re all in this together,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn said in kicking off the press conference, which included representatives from dozens of downtown businesses.  They were there to register their contact information with the TPD and hear about the program. In turn, they were given a registration sticker to place on their storefront window, created by Parrish’s marketing company, Marketing in Color.

“If there’s a tip, someone you see walking through the parking lot checking handles of car doors and it just doesn’t look right, you can call us,” Officer Mahabir told the audience. “We’ve actually stopped crimes from occurring.”

Marketing in Color is also working on a website that will be a central hub for neighborhoods throughout the city to collaborate on. Business owners will be given contact sheets with the names, faces and telephone numbers of police officers working in the district during the day and in the evening. That’s the system that was originally created in Ybor City.

“When a shop owner sees a problem, takes a photograph, sends it to our central number for TPD, and TPD can send that to everyone involved with the program. That’s empowerment,” said Vince Pardo with the Ybor City Development Corp. He says that the program has been tweaked and improved since its creation in 2011.

Fairly or not, Ybor City has suffered from perceptions that the area is dangerous, at least in the evening. That’s not the attitude in downtown Tampa.

“Downtown is a very safe place,” maintains the Tampa Downtown Partnership’s Christine Burdick. “It’s relatively minor crimes in downtown, but that doesn’t mean we can get complacent about it.”

But that sentiment was not expressed at that meeting in October by some merchants, especially those who do business in the northern part of downtown.

“Business owners are concerned about the situation of homeless,” admits Parrish, who says there’s an equal amount of compassion and concern among merchants regarding some members of the homeless population.

“I have compassion for them, but I also want to keep my employees safe, and I want them to feel comfortable going to and from work,” she says.

The TPD briefly had a bike-unit created to protect downtown during the Republican National Convention in 2012, but that was eliminated after the GOP left town.  Today it was announced that a 17-officer bike square will be based downtown but utilized throughout the city. Parrish says those officers have already been busy, making five arrests alone in front of her office on Tuesday. “They’re putting pressure not on the homeless, but the people out there committing crimes, selling crack cocaine, walking around with crack pipes,” she said.

The next business watch program will be introduced in South Tampa, and Officer Mohabir will now be part of that, leaving Ybor City to coordinate the business watch program citywide.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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