PINELLAS PARK — A deeply suspicious council grudgingly agreed Thursday to let the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office carry people to jail after city police arrest them.
Under the proposal, Pinellas Park and 11 other Pinellas cities would share in a $3.1 million federal grant. Most of the grant money would be used to fund 18 deputies who would carry suspects to the jail and book them for the cities.
The idea is to keep the local officers on the beat rather than spend time ferrying people to jail and booking them. Sheriff Jim Coats said that process can take up to two hours.
The format — with the sheriff administering the monies and program — was the idea of the federal government. The U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics realized that Pinellas cities were eligible to receive four times more funding than the sheriff, who was responsible for more than half the costs of incarceration and court security. So the Justice Department mandated that the sheriff and cities had to submit a joint grant for the money that would be used jointly to improve the effectiveness of the countywide law enforcement services by the cities and county.
The other cities involved are Seminole, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Dunedin, Largo, Oldsmar, Madeira Beach, Safety Harbor, Tarpon Springs, Gulfport and St. Pete Beach.
Although the idea might sound good, three Pinellas Park council members had their doubts. They were especially upset because the proposal was "sprung" on them with little notice. The first they'd heard about it was April 3 when they received their agenda packets.
"It was kind of sprung on us," said Ed Taylor, who was the lone vote against the agreement. "I'm not comfortable with this."
And Sandy Bradbury said she wanted to make sure that, in the future, Pinellas Park was brought to the table earlier in the process. She also commented that she was inclined to vote for the proposal because Coats had told them that, if one city refuses, the grant could be lost because of time limits. Bradbury said she did not want to harm other cities.
Coats said Pinellas Park was at the table from the beginning. The proposal, he said, was sprung on everyone.
Council member Rick Butler described the issue as a "pretty hot little button the past week or so." He wanted to make sure Pinellas Park police could still take arrested individuals to the jail if they decided it was necessary. The answer was yes. Butler also wondered how long officers would have to wait for a sheriff's deputy to show up at a scene.
Coats said his office has been testing the idea in Clearwater and has found that his deputies sometimes arrive before or at the same time as the local police because the deputies are monitoring calls. In those cases, the deputies can act as support or backup to local police. Sometimes the wait is six minutes, Coats said.
"I'm confident it will work and meet or exceed your expectations," Coats said.
Butler said later, "I'm putting a lot of faith in you."
Butler cautioned that if Coats did not deliver, he would never again support anything the sheriff wanted.
Taylor wondered if the proposal was a preliminary step to countywide consolidation of law enforcement services. He asked, "Are there any grants for you to make the arrests in our city?"
Coats did not answer.