The Tampa Tribune
By Paulo Lima
North Tampa – Fed up with crack dealers crowding their sidewalks, officials at Wisperwood Apartments began fighting back last week.
From Monday to Wednesday nights, Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies and private security guards hired by management saturated the complex to begin the cleanup.
Deputies from the sheriff’s street crimes unit made 23 arrests, seized three cars and confiscated three handguns in just three nights, said Sgt. Jim Hicks. Hicks said the complex is a well-established drug hole where locals go to buy and sell crack, powder cocaine, and marijuana.
“There was so much traffic through there they had to gate two of the three entrances,” Hicks said.
Evidence gathered by deputies suggests it was a thriving marketplace.
One of the men arrested Tuesday night was carrying 30 individually bagged pieces of crack in his pockets, each worth $10 to $20 per rock, Hicks said. Another couple was carrying a 39-gram crack “cookie” Hicks said. A cookie is a large chunk of recently manufactured crack.
Hicks credited the operation’s success to deputies’ cooperation with Critical Intervention Services, a private security firm hired by complex management. Acting as agents of the complex, the security guards are allowed to issue trespass warnings to non-residents. Those who return are then subject to a criminal charge and are fair game for sheriff deputies.
Many of the people who ended up in jail began as trespassers, Hicks said. Some of those arrested were dealers known to Hicks’ deputies, who routinely work street-level drug dealing. Some of the arrested were jailed on outstanding warrants.
While there was little opposition to the anti-drug efforts, some residents have reservations about what they call heavy-handed tactics employed by the security guards, whom residents have dubbed “men in black” because of their all-black uniforms.
“This place is a jail,” said one resident taking her lunch break on her front patio. “They need to change the name of this place to Wisperwood Correctional Facility.”
The woman, who did not want to give her name, said she’s lived there three years and was upset that she could not receive visitors without them being harassed by security on their way to her apartment.
One mother of four called it a small price to pay in exchange for some peace of mind.
“They [security] are being rough, but I think that’s the only way they’re going to clean this place up,” said Allendys Gonell, “Who wants to live here when you can’t let your kids go outside to play?”
Gonell and her neighbors were united in their hope that management will focus its efforts on maintaining the apartments.
A drive through the complex just east of Florida Avenue between 124th and 127th avenues reveals a run-down property. The paint is old and gray, the landscaping a view of dirt patches. Abandoned shopping carts litter the parking lots. Trash bags spill from around the trash bin in the corner of a parking lot.
Maintenance is step 2 of the revitalization plan, said Bob Ballard, regional vice president of Sunchase American, the complex’s management company.
Ballard said the company plans a fresh paint job, a new parking lot, and some spruced-up landscaping after the crime problem is addressed. He pointed out a crackdown on eyesores already has begun.
As for the security guards, Ballard said the restrictions will be eased in the coming days. Currently, three guards patrol the property from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. Ballard hopes things quiet enough that only periodic patrols will be needed.