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Pasco sheriff wants to take over probation duties from state

NEW PORT RICHEY — Two Pasco probation officers were disciplined in 2011 for chasing a suspect instead of calling deputies to handle the pursuit. A new policy says probation officers can't search the computers of offenders, including sex offenders. And probation officers share one agency vehicle per office, limiting home checks on offenders, said Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco.

Nocco said the policies are not only ineffective, but dangerous. He said the state agency, which is run by the Department of Corrections and monitors about 120,000 felons statewide, has limited officers' ability to do their jobs. That forces them to rely heavily on the help of local law enforcement agencies, he said.

So on Friday, Nocco suggested that the Pasco County Sheriff's Office should take over local probation functions, too.

"If DOC doesn't do their job, that puts citizens at risk," Nocco said.

Nocco said he will meet next week with Gov. Rick Scott's office to discuss his idea. He said it could start as a pilot program in Pasco County that could become a model for other counties to follow. After the DOC learned of Nocco's news conference Friday, a meeting for Monday was set up with Nocco and DOC Secretary Michael Crews. Spokeswoman Ann Howard released this statement by Crews:

"The Department of Corrections takes its mission of public safety seriously as evidenced by the more than 5 percent reduction in recidivism, meaning communities are safer today than years past. This success is attributable to the staff in the department — as well as the probation and community corrections members in the field — who work closely with local law enforcement partners on a daily basis."

She said Crews looks forward to his meeting with Nocco.

Howard said under Florida law, the probation department falls under the supervision of DOC. So the Legislature would need to change the law for Nocco's plan to go into effect.

"This is a statute," she said. "We run probation."

She declined to comment on Nocco's pitch.

"We can't comment on an idea," she said. "It sounds like he is very early in this idea."

Nocco's proposal is that his office would receive money from DOC to handle the probation duties in Pasco County.

He would absorb the 60 probation officers currently working in Pasco into his agency. He said he doesn't expect for his budget-strapped office to spend its own money on the effort, but it's too early to tell.

"I can't give you the nuts and bolts of numbers until we have an open dialogue with the Department of Corrections to find out exactly what it costs in Pasco County to do things," he said.

Nocco said he was stunned when he learned two Pasco probation officers were disciplined in 2011 for chasing a fleeing offender, because it went against DOC policy. Agency memos say probation officers are supposed to alert local law enforcement to pick up such suspects, unless the person poses an immediate threat. The Office of Inspector General later exonerated the two officers, however, determining the suspect posed such a threat.

"Think about that. Two good probation officers chasing a felon who they are trying to arrest get disciplined for their actions," Nocco said. "That's unheard of and it's unnecessary and it would not happen at the Sheriff's Office."

Howard would not discuss the pursuit policy with the Times.

"We do not provide that information as a matter of security," she said.

Another incident that prompted Nocco's decision was the discovery of a DOC memo by Assistant Secretary of Community Corrections Jenny Nimer to staff. The Feb. 5 memo said officers were no longer permitted to search offenders' computers because of the agency's lack of training.

"Officers will monitor offender compliance of computer/internet conditions by reporting information that becomes known regarding computer/internet violations to local law enforcement," the memo states.

"We are basically telling sex offenders who are on felony probation that we are no longer going to check your computers," Nocco said.

Howard said the decision is explained in the memo.

"We are going to rely and work with local law enforcement to get that done," she said.

Howard said the probation department is a law enforcement agency and is performing the necessary home checks.

"The Department of Corrections is still monitoring all felony probationers," she said.

Nocco said the job can be done better.

"Probationers are not afraid of the system now," Nocco said. "That's wrong and we've got to change it."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6229.

Pasco sheriff wants to take over probation duties from state 02/22/13 [Last modified: Friday, February 22, 2013 8:57pm]
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