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Black residents question arrest spike during search for Seminole Heights killer

TAMPA — Members of the black community expressed appreciation on Thursday for police efforts to find the person responsible for killing four residents of southeast Seminole Heights in recent weeks.

But at a meeting organized by the local chapter of the NAACP, some members questioned some of the ways police are going about the search.

Specifically, NAACP members criticized what police have acknowledged is stepped up enforcement of all crimes in central Tampa in an effort to stumble across the killer.

"If my goal is to catch the guy, I’d put all my resources toward that," said Albert Fields, first vice president of the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP who lives near the most recent shooting. "I’m not sure arresting a lot of people in the neighborhood helps in that goal."

The featured speaker at the Seminole Heights Branch Library was none other than Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan, whose department is leading the search. The meeting was originally organized so members of the organization could hear his thoughts on policing given sometimes strained relations between his department and the African-American community.

Tampa police came under federal scrutiny about a year ago after the Tampa Bay Times reported that officers wrote more bike citations than their counterparts in Florida’s four other largest cities combined, and that 80 percent went to black cyclists.

The Justice Department found the practice burdened the black community and was not effective in fighting crime but, while unfair, was not intended to be harassment.

"We are still trying to heal in this community," said Ella K. Coffee, 45, criminal justice chair of the Hillsborough NAACP. "The arrest rates went up during the ‘biking while black,’ and I understand they’ve gone up again."

Indeed, as the Times has reported, police have made twice as many arrests in the area as they did over the same period a year ago. Dugan told those gathered Thursday that updated numbers show that officers have actually tripled the number of arrests.

The chief said he has told his officers to pull over anyone who so much as rolls through a stop sign, though he said police are not necessarily issuing citations. He said they are making arrests, however, of people wanted on warrants or for other criminal offenses.

Dugan said officers want to be able to take a good look anyone engaged in suspicious activity.

"If you rolled through a stop sign before, we might not have cared," Dugan said. "But you roll through one today, we are going to stop you. We want to know who you are, what you are doing in this neighborhood.

"We have four dead people. How many bodies have to stack up before we put a stop to this?"

The killings began Oct. 9 with the shooting of Benjamin Mitchell, 22. Two days later, Monica Hoffa was shot dead, her body found in a vacant lot. On Oct. 19, Anthony Naiboa, 20 was gunned down. And early Tuesday, Ronald Felton, 60, was killed.

Dugan has said investigators believe the shootings are related, though he has stopped short of saying they are the work of a serial killer. They have nevertheless caused fear throughout the neighborhood known for its independent restaurant scene and children’s Halloween parade.

The chief noted that other notorious killers have been nabbed after getting stopped for lesser offenses, including 1970s serial killer Ted Bundy, who was captured after a traffic stop.

The chief expressed sympathy for residents’ concerns about heavy-handed policing tactics. And he expressed a willingness to discuss his philosophy about how police should interact with the community in the future.

"Yes the numbers are up," Dugan said of recent arrests. "Once this train wreck is over, we are going to have another hard conversation about policing."

Contact Jonathan Capriel at [email protected] Follow @jonathancapriel.

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