By Rachel Brown Hackney
With the start of a New Year, Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office’s substation on the Key, not only had December 2019 crime statistics for members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) at their Jan. 9 meeting, he also had a report comparing overall figures from 2019 to those from 2018.
The Sheriff’s Office had about 308 calls for service on the Key in December 2019, Smith said. They ranged from petty thefts to grand thefts, assaults to residential break-ins, he continued.
The most serious types of incidents are those the FBI calls “Part 1 crimes,” he explained.
Those include robberies, aggravated assaults and motor vehicle thefts, Smith said — “any type of thefts.”
Generally, the Sheriff’s Office statistics show the number of Part 1 crimes on the Key for a given month is right around 4%, he continued.
However, in December 2019, Smith added, the Key “had a lot more people” than it did in December 2018, when potential visitors were worried they might encounter lingering effects of the red tide bloom.
In the summer of 2018, people on or near the Sarasota County coastline were contending with tons of dead fish — along with sea turtles and some sea mammals killed by red tide. The bloom also produced an aerosol that has been proven to be especially harmful to people with breathing problems, as a respiratory specialist told SKA members at their 2019 Annual Meeting.
Business owners were among those pointing out to him how many more tourists were on Siesta for the holiday period in 2019 than in 2018, Smith told the SKA members.
As a result, he continued, the Sheriff’s Office calls for service was higher, and the percentage of Part 1 crimes grew to 5.5%.
One of those was an assault involving neighbors who engaged in an argument, Smith explained. In another case, “One guy riding a bike got shot in the head with a nerf gun.”
The latter comment prompted a round of laughter among audience members. Additionally, Smith said, two bike thefts were reported in December 2019, but both bicycles were recovered. Given the popularity of bike riding on the Key, he noted, thefts are “usually a hot topic.”
As for crime year-over-year: Again, citing the red tide factor for much of 2018, Smith said that the number of calls in 2019 reflected what Sheriff’s Office personnel considered more of a normal situation for Siesta. For example, he continued, residential and vehicle burglaries were up about 35% to 40% from 2018 to 2019.
Still, though, Part 1 crimes made up only about 4% of the total for2019, he added. He attributed that to the fact that Siesta has “great residents, great people, great business owners who do a good job of educating people …” They let visitors know “what Siesta Key is all about,” Smith told the audience.
All sorts of questions for the sergeant
And given the full audience at that Jan. 9 SKA meeting, Smith fielded plenty of questions after he concluded his presentation.
The first speaker explained that he and his wife live north of Siesta Village. “We go for a walk every evening after dinner,” the man continued. “We see almost no Sheriff’s Office presence” in the Village, the man added. That situation was no different even on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, the man pointed out.
“I understand there’s a lot of concentration” of officers at the public beach in the daytime, the man told Smith. However, after sunset, from Beach Access 7 to approximately the location of the Old Salty Dog restaurant on the north end of Siesta Village, the man said, “You see speeding all the time; you see obnoxious behavior.” He urged Smith to ensure that deputies patrol that area.
“We’ll do our best,” Smith replied, adding that the Sheriff’s Office tries to ensure an adequate level of enforcement all over the Key.
When the speaker again emphasized the speeding issue, Smith responded, “We’ll get on it.”
A second man told Smith that he and his wife live across the street from Siesta Public Beach. In the evenings, the man said, the couple has noticed gatherings of people “with very loud music playing,” especially on the weekends. They
also, have observed drivers doing doughnuts in the public parking lots at the beach, the man said. “I would hope you would keep an eye on those incidents.”
“We’re aware of it,” Smith told the man. Most of those activities do occur on the weekends and when students are out of school, Smith continued. “It’s been going on a long time. … We’re trying our best to curb that.”
A woman in the audience asked if the Sheriff’s Office handles thefts from boats.
It does, Smith replied.
She then asked if Smith was aware of people having GPS systems stolen from boats in the area. Smith told her the Sheriff’s Office was investigating several thefts involving two county waterways, including Phillippi Creek.
Another man voiced concerns about the danger’s pedestrians face in using the crosswalk at the intersection of Stickney Point Road and Midnight Pass Road. “People push the button and run right across the street,” the man said, “and cars aren’t stopping like they should.”
The man asked if any plans are in the works to modify that crosswalk system.
“That’s a very busy intersection,” Smith acknowledged. “It can be kind of confusing, sometimes,” in regard to who has the right of way, Smith added.
He was uncertain, Smith continued, whether the county or the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has any plans to change the light cycles for vehicles or pedestrians at that intersection.
Smith did tell the audience he would work to get statistics on vehicle and pedestrian crashes at that location, so he could provide those to SKA members at their February meeting.
Then SKA Director Erin Kreis asked, “Can anything be done to get people to stop passing the stopped trolley?” She was referring to drivers in line behind the Siesta Key Breeze when it makes stops to pick up or let off passengers.
As she was heading to the SKA meeting that afternoon, Kreis continued, she saw four vehicles go around the trolley, using the center turn lane.
People legally cannot pass vehicles on the road, Smith responded, when the lanes are separated by a solid yellow line or double yellow lines. If such lines are not present, he said, “As long as it’s safe … you’re allowed to pass other vehicles.”
When he asked Kreis where she saw the vehicles pass the trolley, she told him the Breeze was in front of the Casarina condominium complex, which is located at 5880 Midnight Pass Road. “
It’s almost all ‘No Passing’” in that area, Smith acknowledged. “It’s something we can be on the lookout for,” he added, referring to the situation she had described.
Sheriff’s deputies try to educate drivers, he continued. “People get in a hurry, even out here.”
Another SKA member told Smith that he has observed vehicles failing to slow down for pedestrians who use the Beach crosswalk that leads to Beach Access 10. Most drivers just continue through the crosswalk, the man indicated. “It’s a little scary,” he said, not knowing whether a driver will stop.
The man asked whether any plans exist for installing flashing lights for pedestrians to activate at that crosswalk.
Sarasota County is in charge of the crosswalk signage and lights on Beach Road, Smith explained. “I don’t know that we’ll ever solve that issue” of drivers failing to watch out for pedestrians in crosswalks, Smith added, as long as Siesta has so many pedestrians, so many bicyclists and so many vehicles.
Many years ago, Sgt. Scott Osborne, the longtime Sheriff’s Office substation leader, offered excellent advice to people.
He told this reporter never to cross the street — even in a marked crosswalk — if a vehicle was approaching unless the reporter had made eye contact with the driver to get a clear indication that the driver planned to stop.