The county has marked a 41-percent drop in serious crime in seven years, but traffic crash responsibilities increasing workload for the Sheriff’s Office

The 2016 fiscal year budget for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office will add five positions to help overcome reduced support from the state’s underfunded Highway Patrol; new positions in eastern part of the county deferred for now

Sheriff Tom Knight. Photo courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff's Office
Sheriff Tom Knight. Photo courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

As he proposed a 2016 fiscal year budget of $100,692,103 to the Sarasota County Commission in late June, Sheriff Tom Knight pointed to the 41-percent drop in the most serious types of crimes over the past seven years — murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft.

Over the past year, he noted, his office recorded a 12-percent decline in those offenses.

Knight, who took office in January 2009, has credited his intelligence-led policing program with those figures.

However, Knight pointed out during the June 24 session with the county board, traffic issues are consuming more of his deputies’ attention because of insufficient state funding of the Florida Highway Patrol.

“We’re working 42 percent of all the traffic crashes in this county now,” Knight explained. “We’re working more and more crashes every year,” mostly with patrol deputies, he added.

“It takes a long time to work those crashes,” he continued, “so [deputies are] off patrol for an hour, easily, every time they work a crash.” That also means those deputies are spending less time in the communities they are supposed to be serving, Knight pointed out.

Referring to the inadequate funding of the Highway Patrol, he said, the state is “putting the burden back on the counties.”

As a result, he continued, his Fiscal Year 2016 budget includes funding for five new officers to be assigned to traffic: one sergeant and four deputies.

Maj. Paul Richard, who heads up the Law Enforcement Division, noted that the Sheriff’s Office had nine traffic deputies in 1977; as of late June, that count was eight. (The fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.)

The Sheriff’s Office Annual Report says that personnel wrote 35,638 traffic citations and made 642 arrests for driving under the influence in Sarasota County in 2014.

“We hear a lot of touting of tax cuts in Tallahassee,” Commissioner Christine Robinson pointed out, referring to state government. “Really, they push it down to us.”

“You’re carrying the load on it,” Knight agreed.

In regard to increased development in the eastern part of Sarasota County, Knight told the commissioners that while his budget proposal in late May called for six new deputies to handle that area, he had eliminated those positions in collaboration with county administrative staff. That was part of an effort to bring down his total FY 2016 budget request by about $1,028,000, from $101,720,303 to $100,692,103. (Final adjustments in Knight’s budget put the total at $100,829,787, according to a document the Sheriff’s Office provided to The Sarasota News Leader this week.)

“When we start seeing [certificates of occupancy issued] out east, we’ll have that conversation [about hiring more deputies for that area],” Knight said.

“I would have been comfortable with the extra six deputies,” Vice Chair Al Maio told Knight, “[but] thank you for delaying that.”

Maio pointed out, nonetheless, that the commissioners have approved one Village, one Hamlet and a large-lot subdivision in that part of the county, with “at least two more Villages in the process.” (Villages and Hamlets are part of the Sarasota 2050 plan for development east of Interstate 75.)

“We’ll get it done,” Knight said of his officers handling the demand. “We can move some people around if we have to.”

A chart shows proposed changes in full-time employment positions in the Sheriff's Office between the first budget draft and the June draft. Image courtesy Sheriff's Office
A chart shows proposed changes in full-time employment positions in the Sheriff’s Office between the first budget draft and the June draft. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

Robinson noted that while the public perceives the county no longer is in economic straits, the board is trying to maintain money in its “rainy day” fund for as long as possible.

County Administrator Tom Harmer pointed out that most of the money for the Sheriff’s Office comes out of the county’s General Fund.

In Knight’s FY 2016 budget, the biggest expense — 58 percent of the total — is for the Law Enforcement Division, while Corrections Division will account for 26 percent of the costs.

Knight told the board the number of positions in his office has declined by 8.3 percent over the past eight years, from 1,050 to 962. A chart showed the largest group — 413 — are sworn law enforcement officers, along with 346 civilians and 196 certified Corrections officers.

A chart shows the decrease in positions in the Sheriff's Office over the past several years. Image courtesy Sheriff's Office
A chart shows the decrease in positions in the Sheriff’s Office over the past several years. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

Among other changes in his budget, Knight noted he needed to hire another animal control officer to work in the Animal Services Division because the City of North Port is eliminating such a position in its jurisdiction.

His focus remains on hiring and keeping the most qualified personnel he can find, Knight continued, adding that he believes residents of Sarasota County want his office to employ people of “a certain caliber,” especially those whose focus is service to the community.

“Performance expectations are very high,” he added.

Yet, other communities are trying to recruit his employees. About five weeks prior to that June budget workshop, he told the board, representatives of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office stood outside the jail in downtown Sarasota, handing out flyers in an effort to lure away county Corrections officers. “[That] kind of disturbed me a little bit,” he said, because sheriffs throughout the state generally stay on friendly terms with each other.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is offering a $3,000 signing bonus for deputies, Knight added, and the Collier County office has been recruiting graduates of the Sarasota County Criminal Justice Academy.

Another challenge for his office, Knight noted, is that “in this community, the cost of living’s going up again.”

A section of the 2014 Annual Report of the Sheriff's Office points out some of the honors accorded personnel. Image courtesy Sheriff's Office
A section of the 2014 Annual Report of the Sheriff’s Office points out some of the honors accorded personnel. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

A new initiative

In regard to improving efficiencies, Col. Kurt Hoffman, chief deputy and general counsel for the Sheriff’s Office, explained to the County Commission that the records management system developed in-house in the early 1990s “is somewhat archaic.” The Sheriff’s Office has 22 or 23 software programs “that all have repositories of information in them,” he added. The goal is to put all that data in one system that deputies readily can access, he continued. That way, they can look up “who got served civil papers” or “whose alarm went off,” for example. “Information is power when you’re trying to solve crimes.”

A company based in Pennsylvania has developed such a system, Hoffman continued. It is called Sheriff’s Office staff has been told it can pull together records from all the law enforcement offices in the county’s municipalities as well. The first city to express an interest in it, he said, is North Port. Knight has agreed to pay for the licensing of the software for North Port, “so we can pull in their data,” Hoffman added.

The hope is that sometime next year, the Cities of Sarasota and Venice and the Town of Longboat Key all will have their data incorporated into the system as well, Hoffman said, and “maybe even the surrounding counties, and we’ll have a much more global handle on law enforcement information that we can tap into to solve crimes.”

“It’s all real-time policing,” Knight pointed out.

A chart shows the reduction in serious crimes in Sarasota County over the past seven years. Image courtesy Sheriff's Office
A chart shows the reduction in serious crimes in Sarasota County over the past seven years. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

Emergency Operations Center

The June discussion also focused on the fact that, through its Public Safety Communications (PSC) Division, the Emergency Operations Bureau of the Sheriff’s Office is handling 911 calls for the Cities of Sarasota and Venice, with the Town of Longboat planning to turn over the responsibility for its calls as well. Additionally, all the fire department dispatches in the county are handled through the bureau, Knight told the commissioners.

Thus far, the only agency not considering participating in central dispatch is the North Port Police Department, Knight said.

Most counties charge municipalities for handling 911 services, Commissioner Robinson pointed out, but Sarasota County chose to take on the responsibility without any cost to the cities. “We felt that was the right thing to do,” she added.

The Sheriff’s Office’s 2014 Annual Report notes, “Approximately 100 Sheriff’s Office employees answer an estimated 491,000 911 and non-emergency calls each year.”

The PSC is housed in the new Sarasota County Emergency Operations/911 Center, just east of Cattlemen Road in Sarasota.