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Sheriff says state doesn't devote enough troopers to Pinellas

Just before rush hour Wednesday, in the aftermath of thunderstorms, two cars collided at Tampa Road and St. Ives Drive in Palm Harbor.

By law, the Florida Highway Patrol should have been the law enforcement agency to handle the crash because its jurisdiction includes state and county roads in unincorporated areas. Instead, deputies from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office worked the crash — because at the time, the Highway Patrol had only three troopers in the county.

It's a situation that happens too often here in the state's most densely populated county, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who said his agency has been picking up the slack whenever there aren't enough state troopers to work crashes.

Gualtieri and other county leaders plan to ask officials in Tallahassee to do something.

County Administrator Bob LaSala said a letter to state authorities is "in the works."

"It's an ongoing problem," Gualtieri said. "We're not funded for it. We don't have the people for it."

State officials, however, said there is no shortage of troopers. About 25 troopers currently work Pinellas, up from 13 some years ago.

"Certainly we feel like our staffing levels in Pinellas are adequate for the needs right now," said Leslie Palmer, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. "We would all love to see a day when there are no crashes to work. Right now it takes a collaborative effort."

Last year, the Pinellas Sheriff's Office investigated more than 2,000 crashes, data shows. Many of those — officials did not immediately have a breakdown — took place in the Highway Patrol's territory, Gualtieri said.

It is well-known that state troopers handle crashes on interstates in Florida. But because of the law on state and county roads, stretches of roads like U.S. 19 and State Road 580 in Pinellas also fall under the Highway Patrol's jurisdiction.

But Gualtieri said his deputies began working more of those a couple of years ago, after the state got rid of the patrol's community service officers, who handled things like traffic control and fender-benders.

Now, Gualtieri said, his deputies frequently send him reports about being tied up for hours assisting with crashes to which the patrol may send only one trooper, or just handling the crashes by themselves so residents don't wait on the side of the road for hours.

"We had one the other day where the (Highway Patrol) traffic homicide person was coming from Manatee County," Gualtieri said. "What they say is they can't give us what they don't have."

Palmer said the patrol handled 30 percent of all traffic crashes in Pinellas last year. She also said troopers investigated 91 percent of crashes on unincorporated county roads and "the vast majority" of the ones on state roads.

"At the end of the day, it's all about making our roads as safe as possible," Palmer said. "It doesn't really matter who's working them."

Gualtieri disagreed. It costs his department money and resources. He said other counties have taken a tougher approach with the patrol and gotten results.

"Pasco has always taken a hard-line approach to it," he said. "They're not working FHP's crashes."

Highway Patrol officials said they did not immediately have statistics about how many troopers are assigned to Pasco County and other Tampa Bay counties.

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco confirmed that his deputies seldom, if ever, work crashes that fall under the patrol's jurisdiction. At the most, he said, deputies may make sure cars aren't blocking traffic, then instruct drivers to wait for the patrol.

Nocco said his predecessor, former Sheriff Bob White, made it clear his agency wasn't going to do the state's job. "We don't have the resources to take over the responsibility of responding to accidents," Nocco said. "Our citizens understand that."

Gualtieri said Pinellas authorities didn't want residents to suffer.

"I feel like we're kind of being penalized for stepping up to the plate," Gualtieri said. "I think they're putting resources where they're getting the complaints."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643.

Sheriff says state doesn't devote enough troopers to Pinellas 07/07/13 [Last modified: Sunday, July 7, 2013 8:26pm]
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