Former sheriff seeking to succeed Detert
Former Sheriff Tom Knight of Venice has filed his paperwork to run for the District 3 seat on the Sarasota County Commission.
He will face Commissioner Neil Rainford, whom Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed to the board in June to fill out the term of the late Commissioner Nancy Detert, as well as Realtor Gregory Wood.
All three candidates are Republicans.
The District 3 seat encompasses most of Venice and parts of unincorporated Englewood and North Port.
In a campaign announcement, Knight said, “Our county has seen unprecedented growth and it is expected to continue. While we can’t tell people not to move here, we must do a better job of managing growth and ensuring that our infrastructure keeps pace so we’re not sitting in traffic, worrying about our water supply or falling behind in public safety.”
Knight also is emphasizing his commitment to his district, saying he would “fight to ensure Venice and our surrounding communities receive full representation and get their due,” the announcement noted.
“In 2018 ,” Knight added, “the voters of Sarasota County overwhelmingly approved Single-Member Districts because they wanted to limit the power of special interests in local elections and be represented by people who truly know their communities’ needs. South Sarasota County is not Sarasota,” he continued, “and we don’t want a select group of establishment political operatives who don’t know our community controlling candidates and making our decisions for us.”
The announcement points out that Knight moved with his family to Venice in 1973 and that he “is a product of Venice schools. He has resided in the area for much of the previous 50 years.”
Named Sarasota County’s Republican Elected Official of the Year in 2017, Knight served as Sarasota County’s sheriff for three consecutive terms, from 2009 through 2020. He retired in January 2021 after serving a total of 34 years in law enforcement, including 20 years with the Florida Highway Patrol.
His biography, provided by his campaign, points out that from 1988 to 2008, Knight rose through the ranks of the Highway Patrol, ultimately achieving the rank of major in charge of Troop C, a seven-county troop in the Tampa Bay area.
As Sarasota County’s 10th sheriff, the biography points out, he “led a major institutional turnaround effort for an agency with nearly 1,000 employees and a $120-million-plus budget. Among other things he streamlined operations, created a capital improvement plan, and implemented a progressive policing philosophy that resulted in Sarasota County achieving one of one of the most significant decreases in crime among Florida counties.”
During a November 2012 presentation to the County Commission — when he had been sheriff less than three years — Knight reported that, through a combination of crime analysis and passage of new Sarasota County ordinances, the county’s crime rate was down 18% over four years and the theft of metals — which had been a major problem — was down 92% over three years.
Regarding the overall crime rate, he pointed out, “We’re way ahead of the statewide average.”
Using a methodology called “intelligence-led policing,” Knight told the commissioners, he had been able to maintain a smaller workforce in comparison to the state average but with demonstrable results in fighting crime.
“We use a lot of analysts now — civilians — to control and direct where our resources are going,” he explained.
Jerry Ratcliffe, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, had done research to show that 6% of the population commits 60% of the crime, Knight added. Ratcliffe had helped him and his staff make the changes necessary to focus on how best to address that factor in Sarasota County, Knight said.
By the time he had been sheriff for 10 years, Knight was pointing to the fact that crime was down 51% overall, with violent crime down 43%.
‘We’re not going to use handcuffs to fix everything’
The longer he was in office, the greater the focus Knight put on jail diversion programs. His biography notes that he was the first law enforcement executive in the Southeastern United States “to tackle recidivism and community re-entry for county jail inmates through the creation of addiction recovery pods and specialized programs for veterans and inmates with mental health issues. Those and other efforts not only addressed chronic societal problems, but also helped manage the jail population and delay the need for a costly new corrections facility at taxpayer expense.”
During an August 2019 County Commission budget workshop, Knight made numerous points to the board members — similar to those he had expressed over the previous 18 months — that law enforcement had undergone many changes since he took office in 2009. “We’re not going to use handcuffs to fix everything,” he said. “We need treatment facilities.”
Knight’s biography also points out that, while he was sheriff, he “served in many other leadership positions throughout Florida. Among them, he was a member of Florida Attorney General Ashley Then- Moody’s Opioid Task Force and chair of the Florida Sheriff’s Association board of directors.
He also served on the boards of several Sarasota County nonprofits, including the YMCA of Southwest Florida.
Further, after stepping down from the position of sheriff, Knight served as president and CEO of First Step of Sarasota, “a regional provider of mental health and substance abuse recovery services,” from January 2021 through November 2021, he notes on his LinkedIn account. First Step “offers innovative and comprehensive programs for adults and children, including inpatient, outpatient and telehealth services,” the LinkedIn account adds.
“A graduate of Leadership Florida’s 33rd class,” Knight’s biography continues, he received the Florida Association of Counties Partner of the Year Award, and he was named a Florida State University College of Criminology and Criminal Justice Distinguished Alumnus.
Along with earning a bachelor’s degree from Florida State University, Knight received a Graduate Certificate in Public Management from the University of South Florida, his campaign announcement notes.
He and his wife, Tracy, have two grown children.