Sheriff addresses law enforcement concerns on Siesta Key, including Memorial Day shooting

Hoffman provides information on a number of topics during Siesta Key Association presentation

Although the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office was able to identify the shooter in the Memorial Day incident on Siesta Key, lack of witness cooperation has prevented personnel from making an arrest, Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman recently told members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA).

Even the young woman who was shot declined to cooperate with the investigation, Hoffman pointed out during an Aug. 4 presentation at St. Boniface Episcopal Church. Officers talked to both her and her mother, he said.

Unless something changes, the sheriff added, no arrest will be made.

Hoffman did reassure the SKA members that the shots were “directed at individuals that were in the group” and not at beachgoers in general.

Other visitors to the Siesta shoreline that day reported on social media that they had seen large numbers of young people gathered together at times and allegedly fighting.

The Sheriff’s Office did investigate the incident thoroughly, Hoffman continued.

He also acknowledged that he and his staff received a number of emails from island residents who complained that the agency did not have sufficient personnel on the Key for that holiday. “I believe we had 19 deputies out here [when the shooting occurred],” he pointed out. Another eight deputies were on the scene within minutes, he noted, bringing the total to 27.

If someone brings a weapon to a location such as the beach, Hoffman explained, “That’s difficult to be able to react to.”

Subsequently, he said, he and his senior personnel agreed that the Sheriff’s Office likely will need to place more personnel on Siesta on major holidays.

“This is the place that people want to come,” Hoffman pointed out. “The tourist development folks spend a lot of money” promoting Siesta, he added, and the island has national recognition since it has been named the No. 1 Beach in the United States in past years.

“We will manage the best that we can moving forward,” Hoffman assured the audience members.

For the current fiscal year — which will end on Sept. 30 — he added two more full-time deputies to his staff on the Key, Hoffman also noted. As long as he has been able to justify his proposed expenses to the county commissioners, he said, they have approved his funding requests.

In fact, Hoffman pointed out, when he appeared before the commission in late June to present his proposed budget for the 2023 fiscal year, he asked for the biggest increase in funding for the agency since 2005. That budget includes 19 new positions, he said.

The preliminary budget that Hoffman and his senior staff discussed with the commissioners on June 23 added up to $153,826,543, which marked an increase of about 14%, compared to the budget for the current fiscal year.

‘An extremely safe county’

“For the most part,” he told the SKA members, “this is an extremely safe county …”

“We’ve had almost a 60% reduction in violent crime in this county since 2009,” he pointed out, “because we went after the worst of the worst offenders.” Sarasota County has had the lowest violent crime rate among counties in Florida with more than 100,000 people, he added.

Noting that the agency’s latest strategic plan is available on its website — — Hoffman explained that he and his personnel are focusing on quality-of-life issues, making certain to take care of the public. They handle numerous social issues, he continued, including homelessness.

“We’re not dealing with carjacking. We’re not dealing with a lot of burglaries,” he said, or a lot of armed robberies. “We live in a very, very safe place.” That is why the agency can put its focus on quality-of-life matters, Hoffman added.

The Sheriff’s Office has budgeted for 1,036 positions for the 2023 fiscal year, as shown in the data provided to the County Commission in June.

The agency also handles all of the 911 calls in the county except for those directed to the North Port Police Department. The Public Safety Communications Center, which is on the second floor of the county’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) on Porter Way in Sarasota, receives approximately 700,000 911 calls a year, Hoffman noted. (In 2021, as shown in the agency’s annual report for that year, the figure was 679,635.)

Further, Hoffman said, Sheriff’s Office personnel drive almost 7 million miles a year.

It also is the only agency in Sarasota County with an Aviation Unit, he added. The Sheriff’s Office has two helicopters that not only assist with criminal incidents, he said, but also with fighting major fires.

Among the priorities for the agency, he explained, is traffic enforcement. The past several Sarasota County Citizen Opinion Surveys conducted by a University of South Florida team for the Sarasota County Communications Department have shown residents’ concerns about traffic issues, Hoffman explained.

Therefore, he continued, he has added traffic patrol deputies in his last three budgets. Sheriff’s Office personnel handle traffic issues 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, Hoffman emphasized.

Generally, he said, his deputies issue more than 30,000 traffic citations a year. Yet, he said, he gets complaints from people that they write too many tickets, just as he gets complaints that they write too few.

The Florida Highway Patrol has such a deficit of personnel — It “is down dozens and dozens and dozens of positions,” he explained — that Sheriff’s Office deputies are responding to about 80% of crashes in the county.

His philosophy, he added, is that no person should have to sit on the side of the road for hours, typically under a hot sun, to await the arrival of a Highway Patrol trooper. Therefore, he told the audience, “We’re going to continue to work those [crashes],” though he acknowledged, “That impacts our resources for sure.”

Golf carts, speeding and trespassing on private beach land

In presenting questions from SKA members to the sheriff, SKA Vice President Joyce Kouba announced that the operation of low-speed vehicles and golf carts was among the top concerns.

The vehicles, she noted, “are everywhere,” and on many occasions, they are being driven by children or teenagers.

To operate legally on a state or county road, Hoffman responded, any golf cart of low-speed vehicle must have safety equipment found on a motor vehicle: headlights, windshield wipers, turn signals and seat belts, for examples. That issue is covered by state law, he pointed out. (Section 320.01(41) of the Florida Statutes defines low-speed vehicles as “any four-wheeled vehicle whose top speed is greater than 20 miles per hour, but not greater than 25 miles per hour.”)

The vehicles also must have licenses, and the owners must have insurance, Hoffman added.

A person must be 16 or older to drive one of the vehicles on a state or county road, he noted; however, a driver can be as young as 14 if the vehicle is used just on a private road.

Hoffman also pointed out that he receives complaints about officers stopping low-speed vehicles and golf carts for safety violations, just as he receives requests for enforcement when those vehicles and the drivers are not complying with state law. He has had residents tell him, Hoffman said, “ ‘You guys are a bunch of Nazis out here.’ “

His goal, Hoffman emphasized, is to make certain that people are enjoying themselves safely.

Further, Hoffman said, those vehicles are allowed only on roadways with speed limits of 35 mph or lower — also as provided for in state law. When they are operated on roads with higher speeds, he added, officers will cite the drivers. In fact, he noted, deputies wrote more than 80 such citations on July 4 on Siesta.

Perhaps he and his staff could work to get new signage installed to make it clearer where the vehicles are not allowed on the island, Hoffman continued. Yet, even if no signage is present, he stressed, the state laws are enforceable.

When he and his wife came over to the Key on July Fourth, he said, he did notice many children traveling in golf carts. “We’ve got to make sure we stay on top of that.”

Most of the golf carts and low-speed vehicles he has observed on the island do have license tags, Hoffman pointed out. As he was driving onto the Key for the SKA meeting that day, for example, he said, every such vehicle he saw did have a license plate.

Another topic that is of keen importance to Siesta residents is trespassing on private beach property, SKA member Stephen Lexow, told the sheriff.

Hoffman had with him a copy of the scientific explanation about how to determine the location of the Mean High Water Line (MHWL), which he read.

(The Sarasota News Leader found this definition in Chapter 177 of the Florida Statutes: “ ‘Mean high water’ means the average height of the high waters over a 19-year period. For shorter periods of observation, ‘mean high water’ means the average height of the high waters after corrections are applied to eliminate known variations and to reduce the result to the equivalent of a mean 19-year value.” Then that chapter says, “ ‘Mean high-water line’ means the intersection of the tidal plane of mean high water with the shore.”)

Hoffman joked that he had $100 in an envelope that he would give to the first person who could easily make such a computation.

State law allows public use of the shoreline seaward of the Mean High Water Line.

Needless to say, Hoffman told the SKA members, it is difficult for his deputies out on the beach to determine where the Mean High Water Line exists. “It’s not a straight line all the way from here to Key West.”

“We’ve tried to [handle arguments on the beach] through education, No. 1,” he said. “No. 2: We’re trying to work with the county on better signage and bollards at certain locations [with some success; and] No. 3: I think we have to take a rightful policing approach.”

About seven months ago, Hoffman added, he was on the beach near Access 2, at the western end of Avenida Messina, when an issue arose with a couple from Tennessee who did not realize they were on private beach property. As soon as they learned the situation, he continued, they readily moved.

Some property owners are starting to get surveys, Hoffman said, even though that is an expensive process. Still, he indicated, having a survey produced by a professional is helpful to deputies.

Nonetheless, Hoffman pointed out, state law requires that a warning be provided first to someone trespassing on private property.

“I think we’ve made some arrests that have stuck,” he added, as well as some that have not.

Making a false arrest, he stressed, leads to negative consequences. “It’s a very delicate issue.”

Lexow noted that some members of the public have encountered security guards on Casey Key who have warned them off the beach, telling the persons that the Mean High Water Line is underwater.

Hoffman replied that he believed that in situations the line indeed is offshore.

Another big topic, SKA Vice President Kouba told the sheriff, is speeding on South Midnight Pass Road.

“This is an area that is clearly on our watch list for traffic,” Hoffman responded. Along with Sgt. Dan Smith, the Siesta Key Substation leader, and Smith’s officers, Hoffman continued, the Sheriff’s Office has a patrol vehicle assigned to the island.

Moreover, he explained, the agency has received a grant from the Florida Department of Transportation that will pay for more enforcement of speeding violations.

Still, Hoffman acknowledged, “We can’t be everywhere all the time.” He encouraged the members to let him know of particular sections of the island where speeding is more common, so officers can target those areas.