BRADENTON -- The proposal to develop a community policing plan for downtown Bradenton is garnering a wider audience.
Tightening downtown security has the attention of Manatee County officials, the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority, the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, downtown businesses and other agencies.
While Old Main Street has its nightlife issues, the predominant point of conversation is curbing troubling behavior by the homeless -- panhandling, harassing pedestrians on the street and at businesses, and using public spaces as restrooms.
And concerns are growing some homeless people are becoming more aggressive, according to Bradenton police Lt. Brian Theirs.
Pat Evans, an assistant manager at a gas station on First Street West, knows firsthand how aggressive some can be. On a recent Sunday, Evans approached a homeless man panhandling at the gas pumps after having been asked to leave the customers alone multiple times. Evans said
the man became very aggressive "and spit in my face."
Evans said he confronted at least seven aggressive panhandlers last weekend. He supports the efforts of local homeless services, but he asked, "At what point does it become part of creating a habitual homeless situation? At what point do we draw the line?"
Larry Carpenter, a homeless veteran, says police have stepped up enforcement in recent weeks "to chase me out of hanging out on street corners."
When asked why he thought that might be, he acknowledged a bad element of "drug dealers and thieves" have been migrating into Bradenton. "When I don't even like those guys, you know they are bad," he said.
Seeking a direction
That's where officials hope a community policing plan can help Bradenton businesses and officials work with the homeless. But defining exactly what a community policing plan is and what it will entail is the first challenge. According to various police department websites, a community policing program is simply police officers and citizens working together in crime prevention efforts.
The Lincoln Police Department in Nebraska says the term "community policing" is "the most misunderstood and frequently abused theme in police management during this decade."
At its essence, a community policing plan already exists between the Bradenton Police Department, the Downtown Merchants Association, the DDA and others. All work together with crime prevention goals in mind. DDA board member Mike Carter opened the door to this discussion by pointing out that language in the Community Redevelopment Agency plan "allows for a community policing plan."
Moving forward, those involved will need to define the plan, particularly related to homeless issues, to eliminate the vagueness of "community policing," before outlining strategies.
"Everyone in the community is wanting to pursue it," DDA Executive Director Dave Gustafson told the DDA board last week. "I've had several business owners come to me and said something needs to be done. The homeless are doing X, Y and Z and everyone is recognizing the need for it."
Carter is pushing the agency to adopt language outlining a community policing plan "with meat on the bones."
Gustafson acknowledges more discussions are likely now that more agencies are interested in how to develop a plan.
"But I'm pushing to find out who is going to take the lead on this," he said. "This is a really loose group right now, but hopefully we'll have a better idea of coordinating this at the next chamber meeting."
Other security measures
While the DDA looks to broaden and define its community policing plan proposal, it is moving forward with one security measure and looking into another. The DDA dedicated $11,400 in June to construct gates to close off the alley between B'Towne Coffee Company and Layon Robinson law offices that provides access from a 13th Street West parking lot into the 400 block of Old Main Street.
It's a popular shortcut for off-street parking at night and would likely remain open for downtown nighttime hours, but close after hours to prevent the type of activities that are raising concerns. That project is moving forward.
In the meantime, the DDA is raising the prospect again of expanding its video surveillance from the Riverwalk to downtown.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.