Due to the amount of activity over the summer on the Weeki Wachee River, the community of Hernando County and those that live along the river are focusing more on how they can help local law enforcement.
Volunteers have joined together to form the Weeki Wachee River Rangers in order to tackle the excessive amount of litter visitors leave behind and another volunteer project is in the works: Weeki Wachee River Crime Watch.
Captain J.R. Hutchinson, Special Operations division for the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office explained how the Weeki Wachee River Crime Watch has taken shape. Community Policing falls under the Special Operations division.
“We were receiving complaints from the public in regards to all the kayakers that are coming in on the river on the weekends, with the littering and jumping out of the trees, the alcohol and so on and so forth,” Captain Hutchinson said. “Our deputy sheriffs can’t be everywhere at once, so we thought, what better way than maybe to put together a group of volunteers that can act like a crime watch on the river.”
HCSO Deputy Woodward, Michael Terry Community Relations Specialist, Cpl Steve Kelly HCSO Marine Unit and Deputy Jason Deso spoke to the community to answer questions and explain details about forming a Weeki Wachee River Crime Watch.
“Our idea was basically to see if we can get some volunteers out on the river to help us be (our) eyes where we can be all the time,” Deputy Woodward said. “With the river idea that we had, we are not trying to build that, we are just pitching the idea- trying to get participation from the community.”
One question asked during the recent meeting was, as a volunteer what were they supposed to do on the river.
“One of the things is becoming a visual deterrent,” Michael Terry Community Relations Specialist said.
“I need this to be understood, we are not asking you (volunteers) to approach anybody or interact with anybody, we are not asking you (volunteers) to do anything like that,” Deputy Woodward expressed. “You (volunteers) are our eyes and ears out on the river.”
Chuck Morton, president of the Weeki Wachee Crime Watch and acting president for the Hernando Environmental Land Protectors, had a Marine unit established for the Weeki Wachee Crime Watch group but volunteers became thin.
“Our group got older,” Morton said.
Morton cited concerns in forming a river crime watch group as it can be dangerous on the river- dealing with kayaks on the water- as there is little room for error should something go wrong.
“With the extreme amount of kayaks out there the risk level is severely elevated…” he said.
The issue is safety and the well-being of not only the kayakers but also the river crime watch volunteers.
“I am wearing a shirt that identifies me as a CSO (citizen security officer). I am not allowed to carry anything to defend myself with. I come across a bad deal going down, bang bang I’m alligator bait and no one is there to help me,” Morton worries.
“The first thing we got to do is get people qualified and willing to go out there,” he asserted.
Many of the issues on the river stem from alcohol use.
“Most people are out there for a good time, sadly there’s some people that to need to drink to feel they are having a good time and that creates problems,” Weeki Wachee Crime Watch volunteer Jeff Napp said. He and his wife have lived in Hernando County since 2012.
“When you’re drunk, you [can] drown.”
May 1 through August 31, the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office issued 16 Alcohol Violation Citations. June 1 – 19, there were 10 Alcohol Citations (Adults) and 4 misdemeanor juvenile citations for alcohol possession.
“What I might take away from tonight, is that the cops cared enough to send 4 people here to talk to us about the river.. that’s a big deal,” Napp said. “The community cares.”
Hernando County Sheriff’s Office Marine Deputy Cpl Steve Kelly was present during the meeting and discussed ways the volunteers from the Weeki Wachee Crime Watch can help as a part of the marine unit.
“It’s very important because they can call us with problems that are on the river and hopefully we can respond to them and can take care of that problem.”
Cpl Steve Kelly patrols a vast amount of area in Hernando County, from the Gulf to the Withlacoochee River and there may be times where he is the only one patrolling the waters.
Deputies explained that crime watch volunteers should only monitor a situation and emphasized that they should not get involved.
“They are going to patrol, watch and see what is going on, and if they see a problem… call us,” Cpl Kelly said. “They don’t have any confrontation at all.”
“There are a lot of people who are coming up and using the kayak rentals, they are using our resources in regards to the Weeki Wachee River. We want them to have a pleasant weekend,” Captain Hutchinson said. “We don’t want there to be people who are impaired on the river, we don’t want people illegally dumping in our river.”
“We are not asking them (Weeki Wachee River Crime Watch Volunteers) to intervene or make contact with anybody,” Captain Hutchinson said. “We are simply asking them to be a presence.”
The Sheriff’s Office hopes that a Weeki Wachee River Crime Watch group will be operational prior to Spring Break 2019. However Deputy Woodward remarked,
“I think the misconception of the whole thing is that when it comes to crime watches we as the sheriff’s office do not build crime watches, the community does.”
Capt. Hutchinson extended his appreciation to all those that have worked hard to improve the river.
“I’d like to thank the collaborated effort of everyone involved with all the crime watch groups, our partners with FWC, our partners with the canoe and kayak rentals.”
“Everyone has been really helpful and everybody wants to be a part of the solution versus part of the problem.”
Interested in volunteering for the Weeki Wachee River Crime Watch visit http://nccsfl.com/wwcw/ or http://www.hernandosheriff.org/VolunteerProgram.aspx