Although Sheriff’s Office budget up only about 3% for 2020 fiscal year, issues on horizon will necessitate bigger county investment

Expanded staffing for new South County courtrooms and aging system used for fingerprint identification among topics sheriff and senior staff discuss with County Commission

A graphic shows changes in county population and the total number of Sheriff’s Office employees over the past decade. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

After he took office in 2009, Sheriff Tom Knight told the Sarasota County Commission this week, he and his senior staff worked with a consultant to create strategic goals — none of which existed within the department when he took over, to his surprise.

“We want to make sure we’re data-driven,” Knight added, in focusing on policies that do not just improve efficiency and effectiveness but also ensure what Knight calls “rightful policing.”

“We’re making sure your Sheriff’s Office is contemporary,” he pointed out, with more emphasis placed on empathy than arrests.

Nonetheless, that shift in the approach to law enforcement has in no way diminished his department’s capacity to keep the public safe, Knight continued. Part I criminal activity — encompassing the offenses the FBI classifies as the most serious — has declined 52% in the county over the past 10 years, and officers are arresting 3,000 fewer people, Knight said.

“This is the greatest crime rate in the state of Florida of any community that has 100,000 or more people, over the last 10 years,” Knight pointed out on June 19 during a commission budget workshop.

Knight actually has reduced the number of personnel by two for his 2020 fiscal year budget — from 996 in this fiscal year to 994 — even with the 15% growth in county population, he added. That marks a 5.3% reduction in personnel over the past 13 years, he noted.

The majority of his employees, Knight said, are sworn law enforcement officers. “I think everybody expects to see green uniforms in their neighborhoods.”

“It is getting a little bit harder to hire,” Knight acknowledged. Some sheriff’s offices have begun offering bonuses for people who sign up, he said. Polk County, for example, “is paying up to $4,000 just to get somebody in the door.”

A graph shows more details about the changes in staffing within the Sheriff’s Office. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office has sponsored nine individuals who are training to be deputies and 10 learning how to become officers in the Corrections Division, he told the commissioners.

However, he stressed, “We try to look at quality over quantity.”

Knight also talked about the 100% compliance rate his office has achieved in accreditation for a variety of programs, stressing the link between those efforts and high morale among his staff members.

And while his employee turnover rate is at 7.8%, he said — “up just a little bit” — that is a much better figure than the state average of 9.2% and the national figure of 20%. Even within Sarasota County Government operations, he noted, the figure is 8.9%.

Still, he said, his office remains committed to diversity in recruitment, including the effort to hire more women and providing them better opportunities for advancement within the organization.

For the 2020 fiscal year, Knight has proposed a budget of $120,548,362. Of all the constitutional offices in the county, the Sheriff’s Office exerts the biggest demand on the county’s General Fund, which is made up largely of property tax revenue. The estimated change from spending for the Sheriff’s Office out of the General Fund is expected to be up about 2.9% in FY20, according to a chart county administrative staff showed the commissioners on June 18.

A chart shows how funding for the Sheriff’s Office will be allocated. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

A slide Knight showed the board a day later noted that the Law Enforcement Division will receive 57% of the funding, followed by the Corrections Division with 25%.

Growing demand to handle traffic crashes

Although he is not asking for new personnel for next year, Knight told the commissioners, growth in the community, new and existing state laws, changes in Florida Highway Patrol operations, and aging equipment are creating challenges for his department.

One of his biggest concerns, Knight said, is the 102% increase in traffic crashes in the county from 2012 to 2018. The number the Sheriff’s Office had to handle climbed 416% from 2012 to 2018, he added. For the same period, the Florida Highway Patrol’s participation in those investigations dropped 34%, Knight pointed out. “So that is a distinct shift in my 10 years as sheriff,” he said, attributing it to the state’s failure to make Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) operations a priority.

A graph shows the trends in traffic crashes and their handling by the Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Highway Patrol. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

However, Knight emphasized, he does not want to have to launch a Traffic/Homicide Unit to deal with crash fatalities, citing the high expense of such an operation.

Commissioner Michael Moran said data he had seen showed that even though the number of crashes is “spiking up tremendously,” it appears that the number of traffic citations written by deputies is down significantly.

“We write quality over quantity,” Knight replied. Giving out citations, he added, “is a bad way to do business.” His officers write tickets as a means of spurring behavior modification, he added.

Further, Knight said, he does not believe in a focus on fees as a revenue source for the Sheriff’s Office. “That’s a dangeroussituation.”

Knight also talked about the fact that congestion on Interstate 75, especially, is a big factor in the crash count.

When he worked for the Florida Highway Patrol in 1988 in the Fort Lauderdale/Miami area, he said, I-595 did not exist. Therefore, I-95 was very congested. He has seen the same situation on I-75 in January and February in recent years in Sarasota County, he added, during the height of tourist season. Most of the crashes are minor, he continued, with people “trying to get through traffic. … You can’t move.”

However, Knight did point to one new concern: As more people are using medical marijuana legally in Florida, more DUIs are resulting, and “Proving somebody’s impaired on marijuana is very, very difficult.”

Deputies have been getting training, Knight noted, on how to deal with those incidents.

People using marijuana, he said, should follow the standard advice for people who drink alcoholic beverages when they are away from home: Use ride services such as Uber and Lyft or make sure they are with designated drivers.

Other budget issues ahead

A graphic shows details about diversity in the hiring of employees for the Sheriff’s Office. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Another looming issue he will need to address with the commission, Knight continued, will be the addition of courtroom deputies as the county expands the facilities at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice.

That construction project is scheduled to get underway in early 2020, Chair Charles Hines noted.

To comply with the Florida Statutes, Knight explained, he has to provide 66 deputies for the 16 judges who hold sessions in North County and South County in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court. After the new South County courtrooms have been completed, he continued, he estimates the total will climb to approximately 80 — potentially more, if extra judges are assigned to the 12th Circuit.

The long-term plan for the R.L. Anderson courtrooms, he said, projects the need for nine deputies at a total expense of $668,000. Altogether, he added, his budget just for courtroom deputies will be “probably well over $8 million a year,” after the new courtrooms go into service.

Hines suggested that Knight work with the county Court Administration staff to ensure “proper scheduling,” so officers’ time is spent efficiently.

Moreover, Hines emphasized that Knight should not feel he has to defend a budget request because “we make a decision to serve the growing public in growing South County …”

Col. Kurt Hoffman, chief deputy and the sheriff’s general counsel, thanked Hines for those comments. “It is a deliberative, internal thought-provoking process before we come here [to ask for any extra money],” Hoffman said.

An additional concern, Knight told the commissioners, is the aging Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) that all law enforcement agencies in the county utilize; it is based with the Sheriff’s Office. He has arranged with county administrative staff, he said, to be back before the board on Oct. 7 to discuss that further.

A pie chart offers more details about the Sheriff’s Office budget in comparison to spending for other county departments. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Another growth-related issue, Knight continued, is the increase in calls coming in to the Public Safety Communications center. Dispatchers handled 192,000 more calls in 2018 than in 2013, he pointed out.

In 2015, the Sheriff’s Office’s Annual Report for that year says, the Public Safety Communications center answered approximately 601,822 non-emergency and 911 calls. For 2018, the number was 633,685, the Annual Report for that year points out.

Last year, Knight reminded the commissioners, they funded four new dispatchers in his budget for the current fiscal year. However, the most recent analysis of the Public Safety Communications center — undertaken by a national association — indicated a need for 124 full-time employees, Knight said. (The 2018 Annual Report of the Sheriff’s Office put the number of people assigned to the center at 114.)

In about 18 months, he continued, he probably will have to come back to the board with a request for more dispatchers. “We’re OK now.”

Yet another measure that is stretching the office’s capabilities, Col. Hoffman explained, has been the Risk Protection Orders section of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act the Legislature approved after the shooting deaths at the Parkland high school on Feb. 14, 2018. The requirement for those orders to be processed as needed, he said, “is quickly becoming very onerous …”

The Sheriff’s Office has dealt with almost 30 of them, Hoffman continued. Deputies routinely are out at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., he added, serving search warrants, so they can determine, for example, whether individuals who legally cannot possess firearms have weapons anyway.

The Risk Protection Orders also provide a legal mechanism for Baker Act and Marchman Act commitments of individuals who may be threats to themselves or others because of mental health or substance abuse issues, Hoffman said. “[Those situations] basically turn into mini trials.”

Sheriff Tom Knight (left) and Col. Kurt Hoffman listen to public comments at the budget workshop on June 19. Rachel Hackney photo

Hoffman explained that that facet of the Risk Protection Orders resulted from the fact that law enforcement officers had 47 contacts with the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — Nikolas Cruz — before Cruz allegedly killed 17 people.

“It’s real-time policing now,” Knight added, “and you’ve got to be on your mark.”

Knight also discussed his desire to expand the Homeless Outreach Team that the County Commission authorized and funded last year. Although the original plan the board approved called for five people on the team, Knight noted, the HOT program began with three — two case workers and a deputy. He has added one more deputy, he continued, but his office has absorbed that expense.

The team’s work, he said, “has been huge for the quality of life for people out there in the community.”

He thanked Commissioner Nancy Detert and Chair Hines for their efforts to help the Sheriff’s Office try to work out plans for services for homeless people in South County. Knight said he did not know why the Cities of North Port and Venice were not interested in becoming involved with the HOT initiative.

Thirty of the people his team has contacted, he noted, have declined to go to North County, where services are available for them.

Since the HOT members began their outreach, Knight said, they have logged more than 705 contacts with homeless individuals. Of those, 256 were transported to beds the County Commission pays for at the Salvation Army facility in Sarasota; 37 have been placed with the SHIFTS program of the Sheriff’s Office, which the county also funds; and 55 veterans have been assisted, Knight said.