OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. – The Tourist Policing Unit at the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office is dedicated to protecting the most precious piece of Central Florida’s economy: tourism, as the eponymous name implies.
But to protect tourists, the TPU must spend its days and nights not in the tourist district of Osceola County, but rather in residential neighborhoods within driving distance of the attractions, according to the commander of the unit, Sgt. Chris Devlin.
“Most people wouldn’t know that,” Devlin said. “They would expect us to be in the hotels on U.S. 192 but they don’t realize how many of these homes and townhomes are all occupied by people on vacation. I’d say almost all.”
Devlin said lately the way most tourists are taken advantage of is with theft or burglary at the vacation home they’re renting.
“The recent trend we have is nighttime burglaries to the single-family homes while the tourists were inside sleeping,” Devlin said.
Devlin said the rental homes are prime crime targets because visitors don’t know their neighbors, which gives criminals anonymity.
Tourists also bring money, cellphones, and credit cards and often leave their doors unlocked.
Several weeks ago, Devlin and his seven-person team analyzed break-ins at homes in the Windsor at Westside of unincorporated Osceola County.
They looked at the times of the break-ins and on which days they occurred and staked out the neighborhood overnight.
Eventually, detectives saw a figure slinking between houses. The man disappeared into a home and immediately they surrounded it and warned the renters.
“Detectives alerted the residents that this is what we got going on out here,” Devlin said. “They said, ‘No way, not in here.’ He was in there. A short time later there was some screaming in the house, the guy comes running out the door, luckily the detectives are still there and we’re able to chase him down the street and arrest him.”
Devlin said already detectives have connected the suspect to two other break-ins.
The TPU receives all property-related crimes that happen to tourists in Osceola County. So far this year, TPU has been given 300 cases.
Devlin said many of the cases have little evidence and are unsolvable in the short term but detectives still show up and collect the evidence expecting to connect it future cases when they can identify a suspect and M.O., like they did in the recent burglary arrest.
The ultimate goal of the TPU? To try and salvage a soured Central Florida vacation.
“It could be the most traumatic event that family has experienced in their life so far, especially for kids,” Devlin said.