TALLAHASSEE — After eliminating thousands of rank-and-file jobs from the state work force, Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature are turning their cost-cutting attention to a more politically sensitive area: law enforcement.
A little-noticed bill the governor signed last month creates a task force on law enforcement consolidation — an idea likely to send shivers up the spines of police officers in a time of double-digit unemployment.
The legislation directs the task force to "evaluate any duplication of law enforcement functions," including training, legal services, cars, airplanes and the regional deployment of police officers.
The idea comes from Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, who says he was motivated by hearing that 11 state agencies have police officers, which he said is bound to create duplication.
"I thought it was a good idea to look at what consolidation could be done and maybe save the taxpayers a little money," Latvala said. "Let the chips fall where they may."
During the spring legislative session, a much more radical proposal surfaced. In informal talks, senators discussed whether sheriffs should be required to handle some duties now performed by the Florida Highway Patrol, which is understaffed, has long grappled with high turnover among troopers and is about to undergo a reorganization.
But sheriffs successfully killed the idea in its infancy.
Steve Casey, executive director of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said his group opposed it because of uncertainty over whether the state would provide money to sheriffs to do that work. "We'd have to lobby for contract funds," he said. "The FHP does that now."
Casey said his group thought a better idea would be to allow sheriffs to contract with Highway Patrol on a case-by-case basis for short-term needs such as adding traffic investigation support.
The sheriffs' longtime lobbyist, Frank Messersmith, said: "We did not advocate eliminating FHP, and if you ask any sheriff in the state, every one would say FHP has been unfairly criticized. They have been cut, over and over, personnel- and budget-wise."
Capt. Mark Welch, a Highway Patrol spokesman, said the patrol welcomes "anything that improves our operations and benefits the taxpayers."
But turf wars among police agencies are legendary, and reducing the level of police protection is fraught with political peril.
Among the agencies with officers serving various missions are state universities, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Attorney General, Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and departments of Business and Professional Regulation, Transportation, and Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Latvala questioned why the agriculture agency needs its own police force to "patrol our forests," but the agency said those officers safeguard "world-class public lands."
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam strongly defended the need for his 266 "ag law" officers, whose "unique mission," he said, is to prevent pests and disease from threatening public health and to help pursue consumer complaints.
But Putnam said his agency and the Transportation Department have offices close to each other along Interstate 10 in North Florida, which he said was a "missed engineering opportunity" for consolidation by the state.
Gov. Scott, in a letter to statewide police agencies this week, urged the task force to get to work quickly.
"The task force must commence as quickly as possible to ensure ample time to conduct the meetings and workshops required," Scott wrote. "This task force provides an opportunity to chart a path for commonsense and cost-effective state law enforcement."
Members will include representatives from the sheriffs association, the Florida Police Chiefs Association and other statewide police agencies. The chairman is Julie Jones, executive director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the parent agency of the Highway Patrol.
Times/Herald staff writers Katie Sanders and Janet Zink contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.