Sheriff and chief deputy talk about challenges and successes as they present proposed 2021 budget to County Commission

Sheriff’s Office handling more and more traffic crashes, as Highway Patrol responses have decreased

Editor’s note: This article was updated on July 16 to correct an error in one statistic regarding usage of the department’s helicopters.

A graphic shows the decrease in the most serious types of crime over the past years. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

With the most serious types of criminal offenses down 51% over the past decade, and programs underway in the jail having reduced recidivism, Sheriff Tom Knight and his general counsel and chief deputy, Col. Kurt Hoffman, took the opportunity of their latest county budget presentation to talk about other challenges.

Among those are the increasing need for deputies to assist with traffic crashes, including incidents on Interstate 75; and maintaining a diverse workforce of men and women who can maintain the high personnel standards the Sheriff’s Office has set, Knight told the county commissioners on July 1.

As for his proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which will begin Oct. 1: Knight noted that it is up only about 2.7% over his current budget. His preliminary budget totals $122,208,857, with 57% of the funding allocated to the Law Enforcement Division and 25% going to the Corrections Division.

These details about the Sheriff’s Office budget are part of a July 1 presentation to the County Commission. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

He and Hoffman conducted about 26 meetings with the Sheriff’s Office’s captains and division directors, Knight explained to the board, to pare the FY 2021 expenditures to such a small year-over-year climb.

The Preliminary Financial Plan for Fiscal Years 2021-2025, which county staff produced for the commissioners prior to the workshop, noted that the model the county Office of Financial Management uses in projecting revenue and expenses expected an increase of 3.5% “for most operating expenditures based on prior years’ growth rate” for the General Fund. That fund comprises property tax revenue and other sources of income, including revenue the state divvies up among local governments. County staff calls it the most constrained fund, as it pays for the work of a number of county departments, as well as constitutional officers’ departments, such as Knight’s.

More details about the proposed 2021 fiscal year budget for the Sheriff’s Office are included in a county document prepared for the commission. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

The traffic crash concern

Hoffman and Knight pointed out during the July 1 workshop that the Sheriff’s Office senior staff members pay attention to the commissioners’ discussions throughout the year, as well as the annual county Citizen Opinion Survey, to determine their priorities.

Therefore, Hoffman noted, they were well aware that the 2019 survey showed that rising public worries about traffic and transportation had elevated that category to third place on the list for the “Most Important Issue Facing Sarasota County Today.”

From 2012 to 2019, Hoffman continued, the Florida Highway Patrol’s handling of traffic crashes mostly decreased, making it necessary for the Sheriff’s Office to play a much more active role in such incidents.

This graphic offers details about trends with traffic crashes. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

In 2012, a bar graph showed, the Highway Patrol handled 2,389 of the 3,453 crashes. In 2019, the Sheriff’s Office responded to 5,644 of the 7,752 crashes.

The total number of incidents is related to the “volume of vehicles” on the road in the county, Hoffman pointed out. “We’ve reallocated some deputies” to traffic squads, he added, noting that the total for incidents the Sheriff’s Office handled last year was “a significant number.”

Moreover, Hoffman said, “Traffic crashes take a long time to clear.”

The Sheriff’s Office doe not want “our constituents waiting alongside the road for an hour or two hours” for the Highway Patrol to show up, Hoffman said, emphasizing that many of those involved in incidents are older persons, reflecting the county demographics.

Workforce standards

Turning to issues regarding his workforce, Knight noted that the department’s turnover rate is 7.1%, compared to an overall 9.4% level for law enforcement officers countywide and 19.5% nationally.

The Sheriff’s Office has about three or four vacancies, Hoffman added, while some departments in counties south of Sarasota County have as many as 25 slots to fill.

This graphic provides details about diversity in the Sheriff’s Office’s workforce. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Then Knight and Hoffman talked about the increase in recruitment efforts involving students at the county’s law enforcement academy, which typically has 25 people per class. Recently, they said, 24 agencies — including ones from Miami, Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale — have been vying for graduates.

However, Knight continued, what has helped the Sheriff’s Office not only is the salary level the County Commission has been willing to fund, but the office’s “culture and credibility.” Additionally, Knight said, “We have great training.”

Hoffman also noted the fact that the board has been willing to pay for equipment the office needs to provide a high level of service to the public, which helps in recruitment, as well.

This graphic compares the changes in the Sheriff’s Office’s employee count to county population growth over the past years. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Further, Knight explained, the Sheriff’s Office provides opportunities for people without college degrees to sign on as civilians and then take advantage of college-incentive programs. The Sheriff’s Office will sponsor people for Academy slots, he added.

The goal is to make it possible for individuals to pursue careers in the department, Knight told the board.

As for the diversity of staff: Knight and Hoffman provided the board members a slide showing that 79% of new hires are Caucasian, while the 2010 Census showed that Sarasota County’s population was 84% Caucasian.

Six percent of new hires are African American, compared to the 5% figure for that demographic of the county population as recorded by the 2010 Census; 10% of new hires are Hispanic, while that demographic represented 9% of the county population in the 2010 Census.

In regard to gender: A slide showed that 42% of new applicants and 45% of new hires are female. The 2010 Census data showed females comprised 52% of the county population.

“We don’t change our hiring standards for race and gender,” Knight told the commissioners. “You get what you hire, and bad things happen when you don’t hire good [people].”

Knight voiced pride in the diversity data and, especially, the hiring of women since he took office almost 11 years ago. In fact, he pointed out, he had promoted two women to command positions, stressing, “They earned it.” He indicated that his predecessor — Sheriff Bill Balkwill — was far less likely to give women opportunities that could lead to advancement.

Knight also pointed out that the department emphasizes “performance and accountability in the workforce.”

Overall, Hoffman said, the Sheriff’s Office has realized a 4.8% reduction in the number of authorized positions over the past 14 years. In the 2006-07 fiscal year, the total number of positions was 1,050; for 2020-2021, the number will be 1,000. Of the latter, 437 will be sworn law enforcement officers, a slide showed.

The Sheriff’s Office has added some new patrol zones because of population growth in the county, Knight pointed out, and it likely will need to expand further in the future, as more people continue to move into Sarasota County.

Other department details

Thanks to the Sheriff’s Office’s use of its Air-2 helicopter, officers are able to keep an eye on suspects running through a Gulf Gate yard in May. Deputies were able to arrest the men, who fled from Siesta Key as Sheriff’s Office personnel were conducting radar checks on drivers’ speed near the public beach park. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Early during the presentation, Knight and Hoffman thanked the commission for agreeing in 2018 to allow the Sheriff’s Office to purchase a second helicopter. “It has really paid off significantly,” Hoffman said.

He then offered the following statistics to underscore that assertion:

  • The number of calls for air support that the office handled with one helicopter 2018 was 1,712; in 2019, the total was 2,833, a 65% increase.
  • In 2018, the Sheriff’s Office was able to assist other agencies 138 times with the solitary helicopter; in 2019, that figure rose to 353, a 156% hike.
  • The single helicopter logged 445 hours in the air in 2018; the two helicopters logged 740 hours in 2019, a 60% increase.
  • Assists on arrests numbered 125 in 2018; in 2019, the figure was 217, up 74%.
  • In 2018, because of various reasons, the Sheriff’s Office helicopter was unavailable for almost 70 days; in 2019, that down time was fewer than seven days.

Knight and Hoffman also talked about the programs that have begun in the jail to help people with substance abuse and other issues, so those inmates can find work and housing after they are released.

Knight related an anecdote about his having the opportunity to talk recently with a deputy in Nokomis. That deputy told Knight that two individuals the deputy had arrested repeatedly over the past 10 years finally had kicked their drug habits through one of those jail programs. Both persons have jobs and have been staying out of trouble, the deputy told him, Knight added.

This slide offers information about programs in the jail that have been implemented in an effort to reduce recidivism. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

For another example, Hoffman talked about the fact that 10 people who had received assistance in the Recovery Pod of the jail had been referred to as “frequent flyers” for racking up 190 arrests among them. All have been out of jail for more than a year, he noted, after graduating from that treatment program. Only one has been arrested again since release, Hoffman said.

Knight and Hoffman also offered anecdotes about the success of the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) the commission funded, which was launched in 2018.

One homeless person the team has helped, named Charles, had been arrested 68 times, Hoffman told the board. Finally, in August 2019, the team members were able to persuade Charles to accept help from First Step of Sarasota. On April 24, Hoffman noted, Charles moved into his first home in 20 years.

A pending retirement

As Knight has pointed out numerous times in recent years, he said again on July 1 that he believes the goal for the Sheriff’s Office is not to send people to jail if they have substance abuse or mental health issues that led to their arrests. The goal, he stressed, is “getting people healthy.”

“My hope is that the future of the county, post-Tom,” he said, will include the creation of a facility where individuals can be diverted from the jail so they can get help for those health problems and become productive members of society upon release.

The commission in late February voted to fund a 40-bed pilot program, with the potential expansion to a 200-bed facility.

“That’s better than building a multimillion-dollar jail,” Knight told the commissioners on July 1.

Sheriff Tom Knight listens as county commissioners commend him for his service to the community. News Leader image

Knight’s “post-Tom” comment referenced his plans to retire in November. Hoffman has filed to run for sheriff. In the August Primary, Hoffman will face Paul Fern of Sarasota, who figuratively put his name in the hat in August 2019.

Both are Republicans.

A St. Paul, Minn., native, Fern joined the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office in 1995 and then was able to become a member of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office in 1997, his campaign website says. After a nine-year stint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Air Marshal Service, he returned to the Sheriff’s Office, retiring in 2018, the website notes.

At the end of the budget presentation, Commissioner Nancy Detert told Knight, “You’ve just made the most of the very important seat that you’ve had at the table.” She commended him for his willingness to propose “innovative, helpful programs.”

“Your leadership is just beyond reproach,” Chair Michael Moran told Knight.