ST. PETERSBURG — The Pasco Sheriff's Office on Thursday leaped its first hurdle on the uncertainly long track toward creating its own law enforcement academy and breaking its long-standing partnership with Pasco-Hernando Community College.
The issue was called Thursday in front of the Region 9 Criminal Justice Training Commission, which includes representatives from agencies and training academies in Manatee, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. The panel met at St. Petersburg College and voted 8-4 to grant a Florida Department of Law Enforcement analysis of PHCC's academy to gauge if the county needs another.
A rift between the Sheriff's Office and its feeder police academy run by PHCC led to the request and has been long in the making, Sheriff Chris Nocco said.
Lindsey Moore, the sheriff's legal counsel, addressed the commission, pointing as far back as 2009 to an incident in which the college fired three academy officials after video surfaced of an instructor engaged in a sex act with a cadet.
And as recently as last year, Moore noted, two people were fired and the director of public service programs Nancy Bunch was put on probation after a sexual harassment complaint. (Bunch later retired.)
Moore accused the college of not meeting ethical standards, favoritism in its hiring and employing disgruntled former Sheriff's Office employees who pass bad morale on to prospective recruits.
She said PHCC's equipment is sparse and training facilities are dilapidated. The Sheriff's Office has had to provide training cars and ammunition. The academy's gun range in Dade City was closed for two months after a mudslide.
Marchman Technical Institute in New Port Richey, where a new academy is proposed, is closer to other agencies and would provide easier access for training, Moore said.
Ray Gadd, Pasco assistant superintendent, took the lectern to say the School Board already has plans for a $10 million renovation at Marchman, $150,000 of which could go into renovations for a new academy.
On the opposition, PHCC president Katherine Johnson argued about cost.
"For them to consider undertaking this construction is, in our opinion," she said, "an unnecessary and duplicative expense that would absorb public education funds that could be used to support other much-needed programs to serve the current students enrolled in the Pasco County School District."
She pressed for continuing the partnership with the Sheriff's Office. She bolstered her argument with a flawless academy audit by FDLE in 2012 and said that she has welcomed Nocco and Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis to talk about hiring practices, which Nocco declined.
The first step in creating a new academy is for the FDLE to look at the county's needs for one. In coming months, FDLE inspectors will look at PHCC's facilities to determine whether it can handle training future recruits. The findings will be presented at the next region meeting in April where delegates will decide whether to give the green light to another academy.
"This was a big hurdle to get through," Nocco said after the meeting. "We're not saying there shouldn't be other academies in our county. We're just saying there is a need for another one."
Johnson took a more hopeful stance.
"We feel that we can continue a partnership, work out any differences and move forward in a manner that benefits all concerned — especially when considering the limited resources available for funding expensive programs such as law enforcement and corrections training," she said in an email.
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