Businesses in downtown Tampa now have a direct line to patrol officers assigned to the area thanks to an expansion of the Tampa Police Department’s “Business Watch" program.
The program started in 2011 in Ybor City, where police say crime has been reduced 60 percent during the day and 50 percent at night.
The “Downtown Business Watch” joined Ybor earlier this month and dozens of business owners have already signed up. One is Todd Lax, one of the owners of a building referred to as “The Franklin,” which houses several local businesses.
Lax said the crime reduction in Ybor was encouraging, as well as the increased communication between business owners and the city.
“As business owners down here, we want to make that it’s the right experience for folks to come down and that means making them comfortable from a safety standpoint,” Lax said.
“We were really excited and encouraged to hear the program was going to be kicking off and that the city and police department are making a certain effort to make downtown grow.”
Businesses will soon receive window decals that will not only identify them as members of the program, but give police access to a database of information through special serial numbers.
That information includes owner and supervisor names and phone numbers so they can be reached after hours.
The phone line goes both ways. Business owners will also be given officer cell numbers in case they have questions or concerns.
"Rather than calling the non-emergency number and having two officers respond to your business to ask them a simple question, you can call us,” said Sean Mahabir, TPD Community Liaison and creator of the business watch program.
“Now you can call me and I'll be able to get on the phone with you and say, 'Hey, that's a civil issue and you may want to go this way' or 'Hey, I'm on my way.'"
Officers will be assigned specifically to the downtown area so that business owners see the same faces and the two groups can build relationships.
“A lot of the times any uniformed officer that walks into a business, the first question that’s asked is, ‘Why are you here? Who are you arresting? What do you want?’ and we want to change that,” Mahabir said. It’s important we let the biz owners know we are here for them.”
The city also launched its first dedicated bike patrol unit in January, giving officers easy, quick access to business owners.
“We’re the first line of defense as far as any calls,” said Officer Chris Audit, who serves full-time on the bike unit.
In the near future, Mahabir said, business watch programs will be developed for South Tampa Soho, Westshore and the University of South Florida communities under the auspice of the “Tampa Business Watch.”
The more businesses that join, the stronger the program is, Mahabir said.
“It's strength in numbers. The more businesses that join the business watch, the more gets accomplished for that community. Ybor City has used their voice in terms of getting LED lights on 7th Ave and moving benches and creating more places for tourists to come."
Businesses will be offered safety seminars and town halls where they can come together and discuss the best safety practices with officers.
The Tampa Downtown Partnership is paying for the window clings, which were designed for free by Marketing in Color, and is also hosting meet-ups for local business people to ask questions and sign up for the new program.
Each business watch community will soon have its own page at www.tampabusinesswatch.com.