It’s a chilly night in Ybor City, but the young people are scantily clad as usual. A tall, tan, thin blonde has Bar Tampa stickers stuck to her bare midriff. On a Thursday, around 10:30 p.m., students trickle into the streets and bars hoping to get drunk, get laid, dance or simply prove how seductive they can look. A lot of the girls teeming with Britney Spears’ sensuality.
Sgt. Jim Preston, a head of a special operations unit with the Tampa Police Department, walks the streets with a calm indifference to these intentions to party. For him, the chilly stroll is about looking for signs of trouble. It’s about making his presence known.
His division serves the Ybor City Entertainment Area.
Preston said it’s important his presence is known for two reasons. One is that if club-goers need help, they know where to go. The second reason, Preston said, is that an officer’s presence keeps people’s behavior in check.
Earlier in the night, he’d been wearing jeans. He’d been patrolling parking lots at the Kid Rock/Aerosmith Concert at the St. Pete Times Forum looking for people who were, as he said, “dumb enough to get caught with a beer in their hand and drugs in their pocket.”
Several of those arrested argue with the officers after practically flaunting their beer. An 18-year-old with a beer in her hand lies to one of the officers. She then gives her birth year as 1984. The officers chuckle about this later.
Preston said he enjoys his job because it allows him the opportunity to interact with a wide range of people and because it gives him a new challenge each day.
“I’ve been doing it for 29 years, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” Preston said.
He said the largest problem in Ybor is the aggression that comes out when people are drunk.
“Bumping into someone becomes a fight,” Preston said.
Preston said his wife always says he knows someone everywhere. Other plainclothes officers wave at him during the concert. Village Inn waitresses give him hugs. On Seventh Avenue, he’s like a celebrity. Though people don’t know him by name, he gets several “hellos” or nods from his officers. He said he’s often flagged down by bachelor parties that want to take pictures with him.
There is an obvious darker side to Preston’s work, however, such as when young people’s false sense of security costs them their lives.
“The worst thing I’ve ever had to do is wake someone up in the morning and tell them their son is dead,” Preston said. “But that’s part of the job. I mean, you have to.”
Preston said many alcohol-related offenses are committed by people between 20 to 35, and that, in Ybor, most of these infractions occur between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m.
Preston said the decision to drive is based on a false sense of security.
“When you’re 18, 19 and 20, you’re invincible. You think, ‘That’s never going to happen to me,'” Preston said.
Preston said he once saw an accident in which three young people had been driving home after spending the day drinking at the beach. The car was so badly damaged he couldn’t see one of the three people involved. All of “the kids” were dead. What he heard as he approached the vehicle was a pager and the ring of a cell phone. Preston speculated it was their parents trying to reach them.
“They didn’t plan to die on the way home,” Preston said.
Lt. George Miller of State Beverage, who worked with Preston’s officers at the Kid Rock/Aerosmith concert that night, also sees youths’ idea of drinking and driving as a problem.Miller and his officers often assist local law enforcement in seven counties, including Hillsborough and Pinellas.
“The young people don’t tend to understand how alcohol really affects you,” Miller said.
He said young people don’t realize that alcohol doesn’t take its full effect until 30 minutes after the last drink.
“They think, ‘I’m clear-headed. I can see.’ And then they go out driving,” Miller said.
In a small Ybor security office, ants crawl over a desk without indication of someone occupying it. A mix of black-and-white and color screens play smaller versions of people on the street. The security cameras tell stories of a girlfriend waiting for her boyfriend, a couple talking at a bar and crowds of faceless young people walking the streets of Ybor.
At the beginning of the evening, Preston compared his work to writing stories.
“We take a call, see their story, write a report about it and take another call,” Preston said.
Twenty-three arrests were made that night in Ybor between the St. Pete Times Forum and Ybor, according to Preston. The arrests include underage drinking, disorderly conduct and possession of marijuana.
Preston said the D.U.I. squad of the TPD often makes about nine arrests on a Friday or Saturday night. The reason there aren’t more arrests, Preston said, is due to the amount of paperwork involved. Preston said an officer must go through a two-hour process that could include videotaping the field sobriety test, waiting for a tow truck to come for the suspect’s car, transporting the suspect to a central breath test facility or filling out affidavits and police reports.
Preston said that sometimes officers wait outside the Ybor City Parking Garage and pull cars out of line.
“People who are just too drunk to drive home,” Preston said.
He’s heard a few odd things when conducting D.U.I. arrests. The strangest, Preston said, was a person who said he wasn’t driving, even though he was the only one in the car.
Despite reckless behavior, Preston doesn’t see death as a fair end.
“They don’t deserve to be dead,” Preston said.
Contact Kristan Bright at firstname.lastname@example.org