Pasco County sheriff's candidate Roger Fortney's solution to fighting drug crime is simple:
Keep close tabs on offenders.
"I believe if we worked closer with parole and probation we could convince them to stop committing the crimes or to move out of the county," said Fortney, 59, who worked in road patrol for 23 years at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office before retiring as a corporal in 2009. He is one of three candidates — along with Maurice Radford, 50, a former major with the Sheriff's Office and current Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco, 36 — vying for the top spot in the Republican primary Aug. 14. The winner will square off against Democrat Kim Bogart in November.
Fortney said putting pressure on offenders might persuade them to move to a place where there's less "resistance."
"Not harassment of course," he said. "But there's nothing wrong with selective enforcement."
All three candidates say the battle against drugs and the crimes drugs inevitably cause will always be there, though the drug of choice changes.
In recent years, the abuse of prescription pills became an epidemic, with Pasco and Pinellas counties leading Florida in fatal overdoses in drugs such as oxycodone, though the figures are starting to decline. Last year Pasco had 122 prescription drug-related deaths, down from 153 the year before, according to the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office.
"We are turning the tide but we are nowhere close to saying the problem is solved," said Radford, who retired in December, citing differences with Nocco.
Radford said one of the changes he would make as sheriff would be to not rely as heavily on paid confidential informants in drug investigations.
"Informants are not always top-shelf citizens," he said.
He said informants sometimes use drugs during an investigation, which can make the case fall apart in court. He said to protect informants, there can be a long lag time, sometimes several weeks to a few months, between the time the person is in a drug house, witnessing crime, and when a search warrant is executed. By then, the suspects and their drugs could have moved on. Radford said by using undercover detectives, there wouldn't need to be such a long delay.
"When we kick in the door with a SWAT team and we're waving around automatic weapons, anything in the world can go bad," Radford said. "We need to know the drugs are there — a felony amount of drugs. We don't need to come out with a little bit of marijuana."
Nocco, who was appointed sheriff by Gov. Rick Scott after former Sheriff Bob White retired in April 2011, said vice detectives are hitting drug havens hard.
"We are going out there and taking out drug houses in these neighborhoods," Nocco said.
Nocco merged SWAT teams with the New Port Richey Police Department and got the unit a bulletproof vehicle, a Lenco BearCat, which looks like a tank and was bought with money seized from drug dealers.
"When you have drugs, you have violence," Nocco said.
Nocco said his philosophy is holistic — to have zero tolerance on criminals, but to also focus on drug education for children and parents, and substance abuse help for addicts. He implemented a sobriety program called Celebrate Recovery in the jail, which has a network of churches to help inmates after they are released.
"We can't arrest ourselves out of the situation," Nocco said. "We have to work together as a community."
He said fighting the pill problem requires a multipronged approach. He credits a state database tracking prescriptions; state laws regulating pain pill clinics; partnerships with other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies; the use of intelligence-led policing, which focuses on gathering and sharing data to predict crimes and target offenders and the 12 extra detectives Nocco requested in his budget and received this year. The detectives target prescription pill crimes.
"We are making a positive impact," Nocco said.
The new worrisome wave of drugs to hit Pasco are synthetic drugs, often called Spice, bath salts and other names, which are marketed as incense or plant food and labeled that they are not intended for human consumption, but are widely used as a narcotic, especially by teenagers. Federal, state and local officials are working to regulate the drugs, sold legally in convenience stores, by banning some of the chemicals used. The drugs have been linked to delusional, violent behavior and, in some cases, permanent psychosis and deadly overdoses, authorities said.
Fortney said if he was elected, drug offenders wouldn't be the only people to get a visit from deputies. He'd have meetings with Spice sellers.
"I personally would go to each of these stores and try to persuade the owners that it would be in their best interest to stop selling these drugs that are poisoning our children," he said.
That could be a long undertaking. He said he would make time.
"I want to help at the street level," Fortney said.
Radford said he would focus on educating children and parents about these dangerous, chemically laced drugs.
"We know the results of it," he said. "We are seeing it in our hospitals. Education is one way to prevent people from being entrapped by this stuff."
He said he would work with the county to draft an ordinance to regulate sellers.
"If we can regulate that alcohol cannot be sold to a minor, we can regulate that this cannot be sold or possessed by a minor," Radford said. He said a county ordinance on pain management clinics that he helped initiate worked in fighting prescription pills.
Nocco said his staff has met with the county, but hasn't found an ordinance that would be successful in prosecuting sellers of synthetic drugs. His agency has been working cases with the Drug Enforcement Administration, because suspects can be prosecuted in federal court for using banned chemicals and related compounds in these products. Two synthetic drug laboratories in Pasco were recently busted, resulting in several federal indictments. Nocco said he would support a local ordinance if it would work.
"This is an epidemic and we are taking it head on," Nocco said.
He has instituted an awareness program where stores choosing to not to sell synthetic drugs like Spice get stickers for their windows that say the drugs aren't sold there.
"This is a bad drug," Nocco said. "This is destroying lives."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.