Monday, October 29, 2012

Sanford Police Had Asked Residents To Report All Suspicious Activity Due To Increased Crime

Residents say there is a rising tide of crime in their neighborhoods, and they are blaming the homeless population for much of it.

Homelessness has been a mainstay on the streets of Sanford for decades, but the tattered economy has worsened the problem. At the last City Commission meeting, about 50 citizens turned out to voice their protest against the increased number of criminal incidents occurring every day, victimizing people and property.

“I live in the historic district and I have never seen it so bad,” said Linda Surdin, who is a leader in her Neighborhood Watch group.

She said residents have been harassed and attacked by the homeless and citizens are afraid, in their homes and in the community.

“Homeless people have taken over Centennial Park,” she said.

Meanwhile, Sanford resident Gloria Baskerville said crime is not limited to the historic district or perpetrated just by the homeless. She said drug dealing and prostitution is done in the open in her neighborhood.

And, as the City Commission listened to the crime stories being told, they nodded in acknowledgement.

“We hear a lot about this and it is time for us to figure out the best way to address this,” said Mayor Jeff Triplett. “It’s in your front yard and nobody knows better than you what is going on.”

While Surdin commended the Sanford Police Department for being “very responsive,” she said something more needs to be done. She asked commissioners to adopt tighter controls over panhandling and feeding the homeless.

City Commissioner Patty Mahany told the audience the city is ready to act. She said city officials are looking at implementing new rules governing the activities of the homeless, based on the Orlando law that was recently upheld by a higher court.

“It’s already in the works,” she said.

Mahany also has seen criminal activity taking over the community, including her own District 4. She knows crime takes place in the open in Derby Park and near Bentley Elementary School. At the Woman’s Club of Sanford, 309 S. Oak Ave., it is almost impossible to host weddings at the nearby gazebo because of people loitering.

The gazebo at Centennial Park is a favorite hangout spot for the homeless. On almost any day, all day, homeless people can be seen under the gazebo, seeking shade from the hot sun and a place to congregate.

Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee confirmed that crime is up as the economy continues to sputter. From April through June, more than 300 burglaries and 400 thefts have been reported in the city.

“We’ve got a significant problem with burglaries and thefts,” Lee stated.

And no one is immune, he said, adding that he himself has been a victim of crime.

Residents at the City Commission meeting recounted numerous examples of their own.

A homeowner who has lived on Elm Street for 26 years said crime is rampant. On Christmas Day last year, he left his home for only an hour, but he returned to find his entire set of lawn furniture gone.

“The crime in my area has been real bad,” he said. “The alleys are the hotspots.”

Another resident in the historic district also recently had their patio furniture stolen—along with a grill, lawn chairs, five trashcans and a jade plant that had special sentimental value because it came from her mother’s funeral.

A woman who lives on South Park Avenue has taken to riding her bike, instead of jogging, saying a bicycle allows her to better avoid being accosted, which happens regularly.

“I truly don’t feel safe anymore,” she said.

Businessman Sylvester Chang cited a litany of issues prevalent along French Avenue, including drug dealing, loitering, prostitution and homelessness. One of the hotels near 25th Street has become a “homeless hotel,” he said, attracting a bad element that also brings crime.

“If they don’t have a place to stay, they might have to find somewhere else to go,” Chang stated.

Other residents blamed charitable groups for drawing homeless people to the downtown area, saying the free meals offered also serve as a magnet. But the ‘enabling versus empowering’ debate was not going to be resolved on this night. Rather, the focus was on crime prevention.

But the answer does not lie solely with law enforcement, Chief Lee explained. Combating crime requires the assistance of everyone in the community.

“The police officers can’t do it all by themselves. We need your eyes and ears to let us know when things are going on,” the chief said. “It truly is a partnership.”

However, the police department has stepped up its patrolling to curb criminal activity. Recently, Chief Lee directed officers to use the department’s two golf carts to impede the spread of home burglaries. Normally used for special events, these miniature vehicles allow police added maneuverability to go down alleyways, into parks and up onto sidewalks to curtail crime.

Sanford Police Sgt. David Morgenstern said his department is aware of the safety issue at Centennial Park. He is also cognizant of an increase in burglaries throughout the city.

“Our burglaries are high. When that happens, it’s going to happen everywhere,” Morgenstern said.

“Golf carts give us the ability to be at the right place at the right time to catch burglaries in progress, which is rare.”

Bicycles are also useful to thwart property crimes, he said, allowing police to monitor areas quietly and thoroughly.

He added that the burglaries do not stem from the truly needy individuals who find themselves on the street.

“Those who choose to be homeless are the folks we deal with. That’s the segment we deal with the most,” he said.

Morgenstern also stressed the importance of citizen involvement.

“The public needs to call us if they see anything suspicious. When you see something that doesn’t look right, call us out there,” he said.

Citizens must avoid making it easy for criminals, he added. One homeowner had a boat parked on his property near the alley, with little thought given to security. Eventually, thieves stole an expensive fish-finder device from the boat.

“That just invites the criminal element. Don’t leave valuables out in the open,” Morgenstern said. “Don’t make yourself a target. These are mostly crimes of opportunity.”

To help homeowners protect their property, SPD provides a home-security check. The Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) program is a pro-active approach that offers residents tips on how they can reduce the chance of a home burglary. For more information on CPTED, contact Wendy Dorival, SPD volunteer program coordinator.

A citizen offered another pro-active suggestion to foil crooks.

Denny Gibbs said her family has had three sets of bikes and thousands of dollars of tools taken from their property. Neighbors need to watch out for each other, she said, and part of this defense is knowing their rights.

Door-to-door salesmen are required to have a city permit. If you see someone soliciting in your neighborhood, ask him or her for documentation, she said.

Still, residents say they are increasingly uncomfortable when homeless people approach them. And they are looking to the city and the police for protection.

New laws may make a difference, but homelessness remains a complex, societal dilemma that defies a quick-fix approach.

“This won’t be resolved overnight,” Mayor Triplett said. “Homelessness has been with us forever. It’s a very difficult issue.”

Read more: The Sanford Herald - Crime surge alarms residents

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