NEW PORT RICHEY — In the latest escalation between Pasco-Hernando State College and the Pasco Sheriff's Office, Sheriff Chris Nocco has forbidden his employees from teaching at the college's law enforcement academy.
In a memorandum, Nocco listed "negativity and disreputable incidents that have been an ongoing issue at the college" that affect members of his agency and said he will "not allow it to continue."
On Tuesday, the chairman of the college's board of trustees had enough, writing a response to the sheriff that said he was "puzzled" at Nocco's "desire to malign and negatively attack our law enforcement academy."
This episode can be traced back to a mid-January meeting of the Region 9 Criminal Justice Training Commission, when the Sheriff's Office called for a vote to allow Withlacoochee Technical Institute (WTI) to train a new set of 22 hired detention recruits using classrooms at the Land O'Lakes jail.
Nocco said he didn't want his new recruits taught by PHSC because of a growing rift between his agency and the college. At the commission meeting, Nocco's legal counsel accused the college of not meeting ethical standards, using favoritism in its hiring and employing disgruntled former Sheriff's Office employees who pass on bad morale to prospective recruits. The sheriff's attorney also said the academy's equipment is sparse and training facilities are dilapidated. He has proposed opening a new academy, in partnership with the Pasco school district, at Marchman Technical Education Center in New Port Richey. The Hernando County Sheriff's Office has also severed ties with the college, leaving the regional commission. It now works with WTI.
The commission approved the WTI class. PHSC, a voting member on the commission, abstained. But the college had power to overrule the commission's decision — and it did.
Training classes were set to begin at the jail March 11. Nocco estimated his agency sunk $12,000 into background checks, polygraph tests and other hiring procedures leading up to the class. The Sheriff's Office said it would have paid $585 per student for the PHSC course. Tuition was $433 with WTI.
The week before it was set to begin, PHSC's director of public service programs Nancy Bunch wrote a letter to members of the commission denying Nocco's request to hold training sessions through WTI. She noted that PHSC was willing to work with the Sheriff's Office and had training facilities available.
"This is clearly underhanded," Nocco said of Bunch's action. "It was at the very last minute to try to throw the Sheriff's Office off course."
Nocco appealed to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and got the decision overturned. Then Nocco sought to sever ties with PHSC completely.
In a March 11 memo, he called for all Sheriff's Office members who have part-time jobs at the academy to stop teaching. He gave them two weeks to quit, citing the same complaints about the college's hiring practices and facilities.
In a later interview, he said he put out the memo "directly because of this underhanded action."
After hearing word of the memo, John DiRienzo, chairman of PHSC's board of trustees, wrote to Nocco on Monday saying his memo "reflects a personal and vindictive tone that is disturbing when it comes from our elected Sheriff.
"Your public comments requesting higher salaries and benefits for your officers loses credibility," the letter continues, "when you willingly and knowingly foreclose the opportunity for your employees to earn additional income through work which is to them both professionally and personally satisfying."
Nocco said Tuesday that about 12 Sheriff's Office employees currently teach at the academy. To help them supplement their salaries, he said, he approved a rule that allows deputies to work out-of-county security detail at events like Gasparilla and traffic enforcement during large sporting events.
Nocco said the agency has also raised the rate for hiring his deputies to work off-duty security at in-county events that serve alcohol.
On Tuesday, in a response to PHSC, Nocco stood by his claims in the memo, saying, "it should be quite concerning to the Board that the two Sheriff's Offices who are responsible for 95 percent of the state funding to the PHSC academy have severed ties with the academy."
As for what the academy will do when its adjunct instructors from the Sheriff's Office quit, PHSC spokeswoman Lucy Miller said the academy is already accepting applications and employs members of other agencies around the region. Those include the Florida Department of Corrections, Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and Hernando County Sheriff's Office, she said.
Contact Alex Orlando at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.