Thursday, April 19, 2018
Public safety

Experts question Pinellas' decision to ditch fugitive-tracking unit

LARGO — Faced with unprecedented budget cuts as chief deputy of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office four years ago, Bob Gualtieri set about deciding where the county's biggest law enforcement agency could safely scale back its workforce.

Among the casualties the budget crisis claimed was the sheriff's fugitive section, a bureau of 16 deputies whose primary responsibility was to review and serve arrest warrants. The disbanding of the unit in 2009 led to $1.6 million in savings — and now, serious questions about whether it should have been preserved.

The case of Gregory J. Johns, a Safety Harbor man who authorities say raped and impregnated an 11-year-old girl while his felony arrest warrant sat unserved, has brought renewed scrutiny to the Sheriff's Office's effectiveness in tracking dangerous fugitives.

That job has been outsourced to about 550 front-line patrol deputies tasked with searching for fugitives and serving warrants when not responding to other calls. Gualtieri, now sheriff, asserts that a warrants database accessible from squad car computers allows those deputies to do the work once done by detectives.

But experts and officials at other large law enforcement agencies cast doubt on that claim. Tracking down fugitives, they say, requires a level of investigative zeal that cannot realistically be expected from deputies who are also responsible for policing the streets.

"It really needs a full-time commitment," said Joseph Pollini, a former New York City police detective who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "You have to look at cellphone records, cellphone records of families. You have to look at court records. … There's just a whole multitude of things they have to do. No question: It's a full-time job."

Criminal justice statistics compiled by the Tampa Bay Times show that in eliminating the detectives who performed that "full-time job," the Pinellas Sheriff's Office is an outlier. Among Florida's seven most heavily populated counties, as well as the four counties of the Tampa Bay area, Pinellas is the only jurisdiction without a dedicated squad of investigators assigned to the often complex work of serving arrest warrants.

As of this month, Pinellas County had 14,796 outstanding felony arrest warrants, according to the Sheriff's Office, or roughly 16 unserved felony warrants per thousand residents. Among the counties that provided information to the Times, that represented the highest per-capita rate of any jurisdiction except Broward County, with which Pinellas is about tied.

Hillsborough County, with a population 40 percent larger than Pinellas, has markedly fewer unserved felony warrants, with 9,382. That translates to about seven outstanding felony warrants per thousand people — less than half the per-capita rate of Pinellas.

Footnote to tragedy

Until recently, one of Pinellas' backlogged felony warrants had Johns' name on it. Johns was a 42-year-old ex-con who had served six prison terms for crimes including robbery with a deadly weapon and battery on a law enforcement officer. A warrant for his arrest on a felony charge of obtaining oxycodone by fraud was issued in February 2011.

The warrant was not served until July of this year — after Johns had allegedly raped his live-in girlfriend's 11-year-old daughter. He made bail and was released, but in August was killed in a standoff with deputies, after the girl learned she was pregnant and reported the rape.

Earlier this month, the Times reported that deputies had ignored or missed evidence of Johns' whereabouts during the 17 months between the issuance of the warrant and his arrest.

Connecting the handling of his warrant to his victim's rape is a guessing game, because even if he were captured, Johns could have posted bail or evaded prison through a plea deal, going free again.

That hasn't stopped critics from weighing in. Citing Johns' case, Scott Swope, a Palm Harbor Democrat challenging Gualtieri in this fall's sheriff's race, has promised to reinstate the fugitive section if elected.

"It certainly doesn't surprise me that we have the number of unserved felony warrants in Pinellas County that we do," Swope said. "You can't rely on patrol deputies to serve all of these warrants, because they're busy doing other things, and you absolutely have to have a fugitive section."

A lack of accessible data before 2009 makes it hard to gauge the effect of the fugitive unit's elimination on backlogged warrants.

The Sheriff's Office was unable to provide warrant statistics last week for the years before the unit was disbanded. Because the information predates the current warrants database, it is housed in separate records maintained by the county's Business Technology Services department and is not easily accessible, the Sheriff's Office said.

Gualtieri said preserving the warrants bureau of the Sheriff's Office would not have made a difference for Johns, whose drug charge, though a felony, would have been considered a low priority for warrant detectives.

"If I didn't think we were being effective in dealing with the warrants, I would make an effort to do something about it," Gualtieri said.

It isn't the first time an outstanding arrest warrant has been a footnote to tragedy in Tampa Bay. In 1998, Tampa resident Hank Earl Carr — another convict with a violent history and an outstanding arrest warrant, this one for violation of probation — killed a child, two Tampa detectives and a Florida Highway Patrol trooper before committing suicide.

In the aftermath of Carr's rampage, public officials talked about how best to reduce the bay area's backlogs of arrest warrants. According to a May 1998 Times story, Pinellas County at the time had 48,612 outstanding warrants, including both felonies and misdemeanors.

In March of this year, according to the Sheriff's Office, that number was 65,945. Close to 15,000 of those were felonies.

'Maybe we're doing it better'

The work of tracing men and women on the lam has become a staple element in Hollywood's glamorized depiction of law enforcement, evident in movies such as The Fugitive. It can be dangerous business, but the day-to-day reality of the job is often less exciting.

Investigators must sort and prioritize a steady stream of arrest warrants, based on such factors as the gravity of the offense — violent crimes typically rise to the top — and a suspect's criminal history.

Once they have targeted suspects for a warrant arrest, the challenge of finding them begins: sorting through court, utility and phone records; visiting addresses; talking to neighbors, friends and relatives.

Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Debbie Carter says her agency's warrants section, staffed by 18 deputies and 10 civilian employees, is "an integral part of the agency."

Sgt. Troy Groves, supervisor of the warrants section at the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, said he "absolutely" believes that fugitive-tracking would be given short shrift if left entirely to patrol deputies.

"For the most part, deputies on the street are responding to calls from the public," Groves said. "There's no time," he said, for them to perform due diligence in tracking fugitives.

Gualtieri said the software system for warrants that helped replace Pinellas' fugitive section has enabled patrol deputies to do detectives' work more efficiently. The warrants database keeps a log of deputies actions' on every suspect with an outstanding warrant. The logs, which the Sheriff's Office showed to the Times, indicated deputies are performing some of the same steps described as important by experts, such as talking to family and neighbors.

Just because Pinellas has departed from practices accepted elsewhere doesn't mean the warrants system here is less successful, Gualtieri said.

"If this is novel, and this is innovative, and this is progressive, and this saves money, then maybe we're right," he said. "We're doing it one way, and others are doing it the traditional way. Maybe we're doing it better."

Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

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