AFTER 40 YEARS IN LAW ENFORCEMENT, Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats will leave office in November with a reputation for integrity, innovation and professionalism. Since succeeding Everett Rice in the top job in 2004, Coats has led the Sheriff's Office through difficult economic times, forged solid working relationships with his peers and been a strong voice on behalf of law enforcement issues in Tallahassee. He has served the criminal justice system and the citizens of Pinellas County well.
Coats, 67, already had announced his plans not to run for re-election in 2012. But Coats understandably moved up his plan to leave office after Cat, his wife of 37 years and a civic force in her own right, encountered medical complications stemming from her treatment for breast cancer. His retirement becomes official Nov. 7, giving Gov. Rick Scott ample opportunity to name an interim sheriff in time for a smooth transition.
Over four decades wearing the badge, Coats discharged his weapon in the line of duty only twice, preferring to defuse tense moments with reasoned calm and a folksy demeanor. As sheriff, Coats has been on the cutting edge of law enforcement technology, implementing facial recognition software and vastly improving data management systems so critical to providing officers timely information in criminal investigations.
Coats' efforts were instrumental in the creation of the Safe Harbor homeless shelter for nonviolent offenders, and he has been a leading voice in the battle against prescription drug abuse. More recently, the sheriff has shut down the county's Internet sweepstakes cafes, which he rightly viewed as de facto gambling operations.
Coat's reputation for honesty and as a manager prompted Gov. Lawton Chiles to twice tap him to fill interim positions in Gulf and Santa Rosa counties when sheriffs there were charged with crimes.
Coats has recommended Scott name his chief deputy, Robert Gualtieri, as interim sheriff until the 2012 election. But Gualtieri is also an announced candidate for the sheriff's post in a field that includes Rice and four other candidates.
Voters may ultimately pick Gualtieri. But the governor shouldn't, to ensure all candidates a level electoral field next year. If Scott doesn't find another qualified candidate among applicants, he should tap the wide network of current and former law enforcement leaders in Florida to finish Coats' term. That would serve the residents of Pinellas County well, just as Coats has done for 40 years.