Sheriff Tom Knight and his staff also update the County Commission on recruitment and new technology during their budget presentation
With the most serious types of crime down 42.5 percent from 2008 through 2015 — and overall crime down 49 percent for that period — Sheriff Tom Knight explained to the Sarasota County Commission this week that he and his staff continue to focus on hiring the best persons for positions, as well as new technology.
That much of a decrease in crime “is not normal for a law enforcement agency,” he pointed out during the board’s June 23 budget workshop. “We are very data-driven but results-oriented.”
Moreover, Knight said, while he would like very much to see the department recruit more officers from within Sarasota County, “we also want the right person.” For example, he said, it takes a certain type of law enforcement officer to know how to appropriately handle potentially problematic situations on Siesta Public Beach during the height of the tourist season. “We want quality over quantity. We just don’t want to keep throwing bodies at issues.”
The number of authorized positions in the department has declined by 8.3 percent over the past eight years, Sheriff’s Office staff showed the commissioners. However, growth in the eastern part of the county — especially in the University Parkway corridor — has made it necessary for him to request six new deputies, starting in the next fiscal year.
Maj. Paul Richard, commander of the Sheriff’s Office Law Enforcement Division, explained that thousands of new homes expected to be built east of Interstate 75 in the coming years will mean more traffic. “It is one of our fastest growing areas in all of the county,” he added, noting that the need for more manpower is driven by public safety concerns, not worries about higher crime rates.
“We’re becoming more of a policing agency than a sheriff’s agency,” Knight told the board in regard to that part of the county.
Knight also requested one new lieutenant in his office’s Support Services Bureau, one new chemist for the Forensics Lab one more school resource deputy and another media specialist, for a total of 10 new positions.
Regarding the lab, he explained that it not only handles Sheriff’s Office cases but those for all the municipal law enforcement agencies in the county, along with state agency work, including cases for the Florida Highway Patrol.
“We were really getting tight on the turnaround [last year],” he told the commissioners, with judges and the State Attorney’s Office getting nervous about delays. At one point, Knight said, he had to seek permission from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office for its lab to handle Sarasota County cases.
Lisa Kiesel, chief financial officer for the Sheriff’s Office, pointed out that the department has stayed “fairly close” to its budget over the past several fiscal years, not including state-mandated costs for retirement, health care and workers’ compensation. “Mostly, our expenditures are below our adopted budget.”
Retirement costs have risen 123 percent since the 2009 fiscal year, she continued, while health care expenses are up 182 percent over the same period and workers’ compensation costs have risen 199 percent.
Overall, Knight’s proposed budget for the 2017 fiscal year is $107,151,495, compared to the adopted FY16 budget of $100,829,787, an increase of about 6 percent. Fifty-eight percent of the budget goes toward law enforcement expenses, according to a chart Kiesel showed the board.
Sheriff’s offices generally do not provide animal control services and public safety communications for counties, she noted, though the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office does handle those responsibilities. They account for 2 percent and 8 percent of the budget, respectively, as shown in the chart.
Knight noted that his office does receive revenue from various other sources each year. For example, he said, the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) pays the salary of one of his deputies who is permanently assigned to that division.
“It is probably the best relationship that we have” among those involving federal agencies, he added.
Just recently, he continued, that officer traveled to the Dominican Republic with a USMS team to arrest a 37-year-old man who allegedly impregnated an 11-year-old girl. Knight explained that his view generally is “our bodies belong to the county and the residents here,” but this case illustrated the importance of that officer’s work with the Marshals Service. “You’re not going to go to the Dominican Republic and hide out for 30 years,” as he put it.
Staci Pickavance, the human resources director for the Sheriff’s Office, took a few minutes during the presentation to elaborate on Knight’s comments about recruitment. “To find the right people,” she said, “we have to go out of our local area.”
Last year, for example, she told the board, a team representing several divisions of the Sheriff’s Office went to a career fair at Miami Dade College to talk with students in its law enforcement program.
The Sheriff’s Office has to compete not only with local businesses and agencies in its efforts to find new personnel, she noted, but it also has to compete with other agencies throughout the state. Representatives of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office one day were “passing out flyers to our current employees outside of our jail. That’s amazing.”
Pinellas County has a $3,000 signing bonus, Pickavance noted, for another example.
Even though Sarasota County’s population is growing, she said, most of those residents are not candidates for Sheriff’s Office positions.
The department is updating its recruitment materials and using social media to help in recruitment, she continued, and it even has produced video clips showing potential employees examples of its personnel at work.
Additionally, she said, the office is working to diversify its employees. Sixty-two percent of new hires are women, she pointed out. “Traditionally, law enforcement is considered a more male-dominated [profession], so I was happy to see that.”
Nonetheless, Pickavance said, only 34 percent of the staff members overall are women.
Looking ahead, Col. Kurt Hoffman, chief deputy and general counsel for the Sheriff’s Office, told the commissioners staff is preparing to conduct a test next week with new software called Cobra.Net that is designed to allow officers to access all the department’s law enforcement databases from their vehicle computers. That undertaking will take place in North Port, he added.
The Sheriff’s Office has about 20 different databases, he explained — from those in Records Management to those involving traffic tickets and animal services cases. It is difficult for an officer on the street to search among them, Hoffman added.
The goal is to get all of the county’s municipalities on board with the new system, which should launch in a month or two, he said.
Moreover, Sheriff’s Office staff is eying the potential for use of Cobra.Net on a regional basis, Hoffman told the board; discussions have begun with law enforcement leaders in Charlotte, Manatee and Pinellas counties. His hope, he continued, is that in a few years, the system will be adopted statewide, with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office having been “the innovator in Florida.”
Another new system on which the office is working is NC4, Hoffman said. It is blogging software that allows officers to find out what is taking place in their individual zones — from burglaries to incidents with juveniles, he continued. Maj. Richard characterizes it as “a real-live blogging system for real-time law enforcement,” Hoffman added.
Finally, Hoffman and Knight reported that the Sheriff’s Office’s helicopter probably will have to be replaced within two to three years. The department purchased the 2005 Bell 407 in 2005, Community Affairs Director Kaitlyn Johnston told The Sarasota News Leader.
“It is getting some age on it,” Hoffman said during the June 23 presentation to the commissioners. The airframe is due for an overhaul this year, he added, at a cost just under $200,000.
Hoffman and Knight pointed out that the aircraft has been used to haul water in situations when the Sarasota County Fire Department has needed assistance in fighting fires or protecting property from approaching flames. “Hauling those loads is stressful on the airframe,” Hoffman said.
Part of the discussion will need to focus on purchasing a helicopter of similar size, Knight added, or a smaller one. His staff will be discussing that with the county fire chief, he pointed out.
The Sheriff’s Office does not want to replace the aircraft until that is absolutely necessary, Knight stressed.
In the meantime, Hoffman said, the department has its own mechanic who maintains the aircraft.