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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
The COPS Office is pleased to feature the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office as the April 2018 winner of the Community Policing in Action Photo Contest. The winning photo features a deputy coaching a child during his first bicycle ride.
Pinellas County, Florida, sits just west of the Tampa area and encompasses the cities of St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Palm Harbor. The county’s land mass is quite small, covering approximately 280 square miles. Its population of approximately one million make it the most densely populated county in the state. Pinellas County can become quite the congested area, especially when including its over six million visitors each year.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has served in Pinellas County for 35 years and has been the sheriff since 2011. He describes the area as unique in that it is entirely urban, extremely dense, and home to a diverse population. With 24 different cities in the county, the area faces many challenges, but the most difficult one at the present time is prolific offender juvenile crime.
“No question, it has been out of control,” he said of the juvenile crime issue. “The major offenders are kids in the 14 to 17 age range. Auto thefts, auto burglaries, crime. We’ve had some very tragic situations of young kids stealing cars and getting killed.”
Juvenile crime, specifically auto theft, has been such a problem in Pinellas County that the Tampa Bay Times ran an investigative series in 2017 called “Hot Wheels” to bring light to the challenges. Gualtieri says the problem has been building over time and that socioeconomic disparities in the county play a huge factor.
“Way too many kids are – and feel – helpless. They don’t have the right parental influences. They’re going to the streets for their activity,” he explained. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen too many of them die because they wreck the cars.”
While law enforcement officers are typically the first to come in to contact with these young offenders, Gualtieri knows that the solution to turning the tide involves the entire community. “We’re going to drive [crime] down through enforcement efforts, but enforcement efforts are not the solution. The solution is socioeconomic – building long-term solutions and relationships with these kids.”
In June 2014, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, in collaboration with the St. Petersburg Police Department, announced a countywide initiative to reduce teen crime called HOME (Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement). HOME brings together law enforcement officers from nine neighboring agencies to help better supervise and track habitual juvenile offenders.
The Sheriff’s Office also works closely with the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Mental Health to create holistic efforts that involve diversion programming and family involvement. “We’re trying to change the direction of the ship instead of just steering the canoe,” Gualtieri described. “We have a Juvenile Pre-Arrest Diversion program for kids who are first and second time offenders. We sign them up for community service and don’t arrest them.” This program mirrors the Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion Program launched by Gualtieri in October 2016.
Building relationships, however, should start before a child gets in trouble the first time. Gualtieri understands and stresses the importance of building relationships with the area’s youth as early as possible. “We need to deal with all of the juvenile issues, but we have to start with the kids at a young age. We have to make sure that the kids who are on the right path, stay on the right path. And if they start to veer slightly, we make sure that we redirect them.”
With two dedicated Community Policing units, one in each district, deputies have unlimited opportunities to get involved. The units host many events in which deputies can participate, but there are often times when community policing happens without planning. “One of the caveats of community policing is that there is no set schedule,” Gualtieri said. “Deputies are out all the time.”
The winning photo features a deputy and a first-time bicycle rider during a bike event, doing exactly what Gualtieri stresses to be so important – building relationships. “Community policing deputies are out there and they know the kids and the parents. The deputies know what’s going on with the kids – for example, if the kid gets in trouble and the parent got arrested the week prior.”
Having such well-established relationships at an early age may be one critical aspect to help law enforcement officers drive down juvenile crime in Pinellas County, even if it happens one pedal at a time.
The COPS Office congratulates the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office for being one of the 12 winners of the COPS Office 2018 Community Policing in Action Photo Contest and for its commitment to community policing.
Written with contributions from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. Photo courtesy of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
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