City Manager Rob DiSpirito wanted a "two-way dialogue."
He got what he asked for at Tuesday night's town hall meeting at Hale Senior Activity Center.
With plenty of chili, hot dogs and other provisions prepared by Planning & Development Director Greg Rice's wife, roughly 80 residents and numerous city leaders and law enforcement officials hunkered down for three hours in passionate, sometimes emotional and frustration-fused dialogue, with the bulk of the conversation focused on Southside neighborhood crime and criticism directed at Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
"We know that the problem doesn’t stop at Union Street," Gualtieri said to the crowd, which included Mayor Dave Eggers, Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski and Commissioner-elect Heather Gracy, Clearwater Police Chief Anthony Holloway and several police officers. "It doesn’t mean it’s Clearwater’s problem; it’s a community problem."
Gualtieri acknowledged increased drug activity in the southside neighborhoods and explained how he increased directed patrols there by more than 100 hours this year from last. He also more than doubled deputies' time interacting with residents.
"We want a dialogue. We want to help solve these problems," Gualtieri said.
He talked about the recent re-instatement of a Community Policing Officer, who will work closely with Clearwater Police. The position was cut because of budget contraints.
Gualtieri also explained how shutting down drug dealers requires intensive, undercover investigations, which take time. Results won't appear overnight, he explained.
At least a dozen residents stood up to vent their frustration. They criticized Gualtieri for a perceived lack of communication and follow-through from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
"I was held at gunpoint during an armed home invasion," a resident on Helen Street said. "Three others are tied to the same guy. He has not been caught. What bothers me is nobody knows there's still someone running around with guns."
Stacy Rush, a Lyndhurst Street resident, told the Sheriff that when she tried to establish a Neighborhood Watch group in July, no one from North District Station would help her.
"The deputy couldn’t get off the cell phone long enough to stand up," she said raising her voice, and adding that the deputy later erroneously told her the Sheriff's Office didn't have resources for neighborhood watch groups. "I dialed every number on your website until I stumbled onto her (Sgt. Denise Nestor)," the deputy coordinator for the Sheriff's neighborhood watch program.
"We call over and over and over again, and we're told go back in your house, we can’t do anything if we didn’t see 'em."
Rush asked the Sheriff when the residents' rights would be respected over the criminals.
The crowd erupted in applause.
Bree Cheatham defended the city's and deputies' efforts.
Cheatham empathized with frustrated residents, saying that her neighborhood was tormented by drug activity for years. It took six years, but she reported "immense improvements" since she and her neighbors started working with the Sheriff's Office.
"We are lucky enough to have Deputy (Spencer) Gross. We were complaining that we weren’t getting calls back. He gave us his direct number. ... Maybe (southside residents) are missing that connection" with their patrol deputy, Cheatham suggested to the new southside patrol deputy.
"This is really the beginning for you," she said, encouraging everyone present to be patient, but persistent.
"Me and my neighbors feel like we’re safer," Cheatham said. "My guess is that there will be improvement (for southside residents)."
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