With more than 14,000 outstanding felony arrest warrants, there should be plenty of work to keep Pinellas County sheriff's deputies busy rounding up those wanted people who pose a significant safety risk. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri did the right thing by reversing course and re-establishing a unit dedicated to tracking down the most dangerous suspects.
Pinellas County had been the only jurisdiction among Florida's seven most populated counties without a full-time squad of detectives serving outstanding arrest warrants — and it had the highest per capita rate of outstanding felony warrants among that group, tying Broward County. To save $1.9 million, as chief deputy to then-Sheriff Jim Coats in 2009, Gualtieri oversaw the elimination of the 16-member warrants bureau. Gualtieri argued the work could be absorbed by patrol deputies, but they could not keep pace with a growing warrants list. Gregory Johns of Safety Harbor eluded capture for 17 months on a felony arrest warrant for drug charges. During that time he raped and impregnated an 11-year-old girl.
The Johns case, among others, so troubled Gualtieri he moved to create the Violent Offender Warrant Unit, which will be staffed by a team of four detectives and a sergeant operating on a $400,000 budget. Unlike the previous unit that could get bogged down looking for minor drug offenders, nonviolent criminals and people involved in civil cases, the new unit will be focusing on the area's most violent wanted felons.
Gualtieri's decision also underscores the need for Pinellas County to improve an antiquated system of record-keeping for outstanding warrants. As the Tampa Bay Times' Peter Jamison and Dan Sullivan reported, other Florida counties routinely purge aging warrants for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. Of the 55,000 arrest warrants on file in Pinellas County, 22,000 of them are more than 12 years old. Pinellas County law enforcement and courts officials need to reform the warrants system by weeding out old warrants and creating a more efficient and detailed system that prioritizes warrants based on the severity of the crime. Two active warrants are for people who were born in 1901. It is probably safe to stop looking for them.