Citizens and police working together against crime have elevated Clearwater to one of the country’s safer cities
wo small girls were walking home from school on Saturn Avenue, unaware of the car that was slowly driving down the street, following them. Security staff on duty at the front entrance to a Church of Scientology apartment complex on Saturn spotted the driver tailing the children. They immediately alerted the police, who responded to the call and intercepted the suspicious car.
While there is no way to tell that a potential crime would have actually happened, “We obviously couldn’t take the chance with those children,” said Max Shadd, one of the Church’s security officers.
The Church of Scientology has long had a safe environment high on its list of concerns, working with local law enforcement and community officials to make that a continuing reality in Clearwater.
With its international spiritual retreat located downtown, the Church must be mindful of the safety and well-being of up to 1,500 visitors from around the world at any one time, not to mention concern for the nearly 10,000 Scientologists residing in the Tampa Bay area who frequent the Church’s Clearwater facilities.
When it comes to crime, Clearwater is recognized as one of the safer cities in the United States. According to Morgan Quinto Press, which compiles and publishes FBI crime statistics, the city ranks as the 73rd safest in the country. The trend is continuing. Indeed, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement reported in October 2001 that the city of Clearwater experienced the largest drop in crime in the state, a decrease of 10.3 percent between January and June.
It wasn’t always like that. Twenty years ago, Clearwater had regular reports of serious crime; even 10 years ago, South Greenwood was experiencing a serious crime problem. Clearwater Police Chief Sid Klein responded by helping to start a neighborhood crime watch group in the area.
As South Greenwood activist Lois Cormier told The Tampa Tribune, “We had a terrible problem with crime. They [police] helped us to get a very good neighborhood group going, plus a police substation.”
While the crime rate has markedly improved, crime still ranks high among residents’ concerns, as it should. Safety is far from just the responsibility of the police, as joint civic and police projects like that in Greenwood demonstrate. The benefits of community involvement can be far-reaching in any community.
“Eyes and Ears”
Efforts to secure safety for Church members have also created a perimeter of safety for the neighborhoods surrounding Church properties. On many occasions, the Church’s security personnel have been instrumental in apprehending criminals troubling the community at large.
Cooperation between the Church’s personnel and the police, for example, assisted the Largo Police Department in finally capturing a particularly elusive band of criminals. Police had been investigating a string of more than 200 crimes in the area including vehicle break-ins, theft and incidents of random BB gun shootings, but had been unable to identify those responsible.
When it comes to crime, Clearwater is recognized as one of the safer cities in the United States.
On the evening of Thanksgiving Day 2000, one of the offenders aimed a gun through the window of a car and shot a round of BB bullets while passing the Church’s Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater. Church security videos revealed a green Saturn driving away from the incident. Security staff turned over an enlarged print of the car’s image, complete with license plate, to the authorities.
While security cameras at Albertson’s supermarket in Clearwater and Largo Middle School had captured the criminals in action, using the third video from the Church, investigators said they were able to finally make a positive identification. The recording provided the missing link, and police moved in and arrested the offenders.
“The police cannot be everywhere at once,” said Shadd. “We take it as our citizen responsibility to be ‘eyes and ears’, and to be alert and report crime and suspicious activity wherever we see it.”
That sort of alertness can yield big results. When someone stole a bicycle from a Church staff member a few years ago, the Church’s security staff tracked the culprit to a nearby house and alerted police — who found not just the bike snatcher but a virtual den of thieves in a home full of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stolen goods.
Alertness can prevent crime before it happens, a primary purpose for neighborhood watches — as in the example of the action taken on the suspicious driver following the two schoolgirls.
Crime can also be reduced or prevented in other ways. Property upgrades make a difference. Along North Fort Harrison, three motels that once harbored drug pushers and prostitutes were purchased by the Church of Scientology and are now fully renovated residences for visiting Scientologist students. These properties have become a safe haven for the neighborhoods around them.
“Now I can get off at the bus stop there and feel safe,” said a woman resident returning home from work, adding that she used to go to a bus stop much farther away from her home and wend her way back through several streets, just so she would not have to walk near the hotels.
Organized community efforts can also help solve the underlying conditions that contribute to crime.
When citizens and business owners complained about homeless individuals loitering and committing vandalism and thefts in the early 1990s, the community’s response was the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project (CHIP). The coordinated effort between the Salvation Army, Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Clearwater Housing Authority, the Clearwater Police Department and Pinellas County Social Services resulted in an emergency shelter with a police substation — one of the first of its kind in the country — and a variety of alternatives for the homeless when they leave the shelter.
CHIP has helped to make Clearwater safer by providing constructive assistance to vagrants who felt that crime was their only solution for living.
Coalition members acknowledge that the police’s assistance and presence has been instrumental in CHIP’s success.
Improved safety throughout the city confirms the necessity of the police and community working together. Since the 1980s, when police were struggling with increasing crime and growing concerns among residents about neighborhood violence, the police department stepped up community policing efforts and encouraged citizens to participate in making the city a safe place to live.
Organizations like the Church of Scientology have responded by upgrading their properties, increasing their security presence and cooperating with police to foil criminals.
“The important thing,” said Pat Harney, Director of Public Affairs for the Church, “is not just that our parishioners and staff are safe, but our security staff’s ability to work with the police and others to help ensure the safety of our entire community.”