Saturday, May 26, 2018
Public safety

Pinellas sheriff reverses course, reconstitutes fugitive unit

CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is forming a special squad of detectives to track down dangerous fugitives, reversing the controversial decision to disband a similar unit during wide-ranging budget cuts four years ago.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told the Tampa Bay Times he is in the process of creating a Violent Offender Warrant Unit that will be staffed by four detectives and a sergeant. Those deputies will work full-time to clear outstanding arrest warrants for suspects accused of violent crimes, sex offenses and serious drug felonies, Gualtieri said.

The move is a course correction for Gualtieri, who in his former position as chief sheriff's deputy oversaw the elimination of the previous 16-member warrants bureau in 2009. Since then, he has defended his decision to continue operating without full-time fugitive detectives, instead assigning the task of serving arrest warrants to patrol deputies on top of their other duties.

However, Gualtieri said he decided to closely review warrant policies after a series of Times stories late last year drew attention to concerns about the efficiency with which deputies track fugitives.

In one case examined by the newspaper, Terry Rugg, a 50-year-old man wanted on molestation charges, lived for 20 years as a fugitive. For much of that time, he was in nearby Polk County. In another case, Safety Harbor resident Gregory Johns, 42, eluded capture for 17 months on an arrest warrant for a felony drug charge. During that period, he raped and impregnated an 11-year-old girl.

The Times also found that Pinellas County was the only jurisdiction among Florida's seven most-populated counties that lacked a full-time squad of fugitive detectives, and had the highest per-capita rate of outstanding felony warrants among those counties except for Broward, with which it was tied.

The county currently has just over 14,000 backlogged felony arrest warrants on file, and 55,000 arrest warrants overall, including misdemeanors.

"It became evident to me that we needed to do more and do better as far as staying on top of these serious crime warrants," Gualtieri said. "The Gregory Johns situation, the one over there in Polk County. . . it made us take a look at it. It would be impossible not to take a look at it."

Gualtieri said the unit will not result in new expenses, since it will be staffed with deputies who are on the payroll and are being reassigned. He estimated the annual cost of staffing the unit at about $400,000 per year. The unit that was abandoned in 2009 cost $1.9 million per year.

By reinstating a fugitive squad, the Sheriff's Office is hewing to what has become standard practice in modern law enforcement agencies, said Ben Tisa, a police-training consultant and former FBI agent based in California.

Tisa noted the intensive research required in searching for fugitives can occupy hours at a time, making thorough investigations unrealistic for many front-line patrol officers. Smaller police agencies often cooperate on regional warrants task forces, he said, each devoting one or two detectives to a team covering multiple jurisdictions.

Gualtieri said the new warrants unit will be superior to the larger one cut in 2009 because it will prioritize dangerous fugitives instead of minor drug offenders, nonviolent criminals and those involved in civil cases.

He said the new squad will also be trained in novel investigative techniques involving social media — should a fugitive pop up on Facebook or Twitter, he said, detectives will be watching. The goal, he said, will be "a due-diligence effort, perpetually, until the person is in custody."

Challenges await Pinellas' new fugitive detectives beyond the predictable rigors of the job.

Gualtieri said recordkeeping practices in the Pinellas County courts currently make it difficult to prioritize some warrants over others, since they are categorized too vaguely. He said the courts also need to do a better job of purging old warrants.

Roughly 22,000 of Pinellas' outstanding arrest warrants are more than 12 years old. Two outstanding warrants are on file for people born in 1901, Gualtieri said.

By contrast, he said, other counties regularly purge aging arrest warrants. His office's review found that Hillsborough County — which had 24,000 warrants as of last year, less than half as many as Pinellas — purges misdemeanor warrants older than three years, and nonviolent felony warrants older than 10 years.

The sheriff said he plans to consult with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, the Clerk of the Court, and the county's Business Technology Services department on ways to improve these record-keeping practices.

Reforming the way the county stores old arrest warrants could also be complicated by an ongoing overhaul of the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court's data storage system.

Court spokesman Ron Stuart said that work is expected to be completed this year.

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

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