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Neighborhood sees danger in the dark

MANATEE — Small shadowy figures reveal children playing ball in the street. Gang members hang back at a nearby house.

What little light provided is from porch lights flipped on by residents. Not all homes have them.

“It could be better,” said Patrice Poole, whose car was shot up on 33rd Avenue Drive East in January. “Just imagine what this would look like, if no one had their lights on. ... It’s been shooting after shooting out here.”

Crime gravitates to darkness, where it is difficult for law enforcement to apprehend suspects and victims to identify assailants.

Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Gwen Brown, who represents this neighborhood near Samoset, says the lack of lights has been a problem for years. She wants to change the process required to install lights in neighborhoods so that low-income and crime-ridden areas can be lit for safety.

“It’s a public safety issue for law enforcement officers who have to go in there and deal with these gang-bangers and drugs dealers. Those guys are heavily armed and law officers need lighting for their own safety,” Brown said.

Community advocates say the darkness makes it difficult for residents to give any crime details to law enforcement because they often can’t see people or vehicles.

From 2007 to 2008, overall crime went up 6 percent in the neighborhood, according to sheriff’s office statistics. The area spreads from 15th Street East to First Street, and north of 21st Avenue East to 44th Avenue East.

After 9-year-old Stacy Williams III was killed in a random gang shooting on Fifth Street East in mid-2007, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office deputies patrolled the area, saturating it heavily for about five months.

As many as three green-and-white-marked patrol cars could be seen at one time in just a few blocks of the neighborhood.

“We still hit that area heavily. It gets as much patrol as anyplace else in the county,” said Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Col. Chuck Hagaman. “You have to remember the Stacy Williams case was a gang-related case. A lot of gang-related violence has dropped. We’re seeing a little bit of resurgence, but we’re addressing that.”

Poole, who has organized a grassroots organization called Active Concerned Citizens, has felt that resurgence. She was visiting a friend’s residence in January when her white Cadillac was shot up near a neighboring gang house on 33rd Avenue East Drive. She wasn’t in the car.

“The officers who used to work this area are gone. They’ve been pulled into different areas,” Poole said. “It seems like they wake up for a minute, but some gang members are coming back. We don’t need a wake-up call temporarily.”

Last week, deputies arrested a juvenile on a warrant at a house affiliated with the SUR-13 criminal street gang. Blue spray-painted graffiti marking a No. 13 is tagged on the wall of a vacant home next door.

In the same block, young men play a pickup basketball in the middle of the street. Small children ride bikes near their driveways as the sun begins to set.

For a neighborhood to have street lights installed, property owners must circulate a petition and turn it in to the public works department. Cards are sent to property owners, and if a majority opts for lights, the lights are installed and the cost is covered by their next tax bill.

That process doesn’t work in low-income areas where properties are mostly rentals.

The sheriff’s office submitted over two dozen streets to the public works department that are in need of street lights in high crime areas last week.

The sheriff’s office has been asked to narrow down the list of streets and prioritize which streets need lighting the most, said Sherri Robinson, assessment coordinator at the Manatee County Public Works Department.

Jolene, 26, just moved to the neighborhood a few months ago on Eighth Street East. She feared giving her full name for the interview.

“I don’t really come out here at night. There’s a lot of drugs. I can hear gunshots all the time sitting in my room,” she said.

With lights, she said, “people could at least see where it’s coming from.”

As racketeering cases send gang leaders to prison with lengthy sentences, Hagaman said, some of the younger gang members are stepping up to fill those leadership roles.

The lightless streets don’t help.

“I think it helps facilitate crime. It makes it easier on suspects,” Hagaman said.

Still, some crimes have actually decreased from 2007 to 2008.

Violent crimes such as robberies and assaults went down; property crimes such as burglaries and thefts increased.

Robberies dropped by about 15 percent, from 38 cases to 32; rapes went down by one case, dropping from four to three. Aggravated assaults, which include shootings, decreased by 10 percent, going from 100 cases to 90.

Larcenies increased by about 12 percent, going from 251 to 282.

Hagaman blames the increased property thefts on the struggling economy.

“You have to remember unemployment doubled over the year,” he said.

This year, violent crime trends appear to be climbing throughout the county, with 10 homicides and 10 bank robberies to date.

Brown insists lighted streets would be a step in the right direction. She said she is researching the issue with county staff to find other ways to finance lights here and in other troubled areas, including Samoset and Oneco.

Federal community development funds might be used to install the lights. In the past, such funds have been used to install the light poles, but not for the actual lights or continuous lighting bills, she said.

“When it comes before the board, they are going to look at how it’s paid for,” she said.

Emma Harris, 63, lives off of Fifth Street Court East. Her grandchildren play there as she watches over them. But as the sun sets, the children draw closer to home. The darkness causes concern.

“It would help to see what’s going on,” she said.

Beth Burger, criminal justice reporter, can be reached at 708-7919.