County commissioners and Sheriff Chris Nocco came to a reasonable accord this week, agreeing to keep Officer Friendly on the beat in northeast Pasco. A $56,000 shortfall had threatened the ability to maintain the two-officer program after county staffers recommended steering federal dollars into a wider array of community services including the Good Samaritan Health Clinic for the needy and the Connections Job Development efforts for the unemployed.
Instead, the commission and sheriff indicated they would split the difference, with each using $28,000 from other accounts to keep Officer Friendly deputies in Dade City and in Lacoochee.
It is the right move. Failing to maintain this traditional community-oriented policing technique, particularly in Lacoochee, would have sent a contradictory message to an area previously designated for long-term redevelopment. Likewise, it would have been just as unreasonable if either the county or the Sheriff's Office had postured that they were unable to find such a relatively paltry amount elsewhere in their budgets.
Officer Friendly — in this case, Pasco sheriff's deputies patrolling neighborhoods on foot and getting to know residents by name — first appeared to public housing residents in Lacoochee in 1991 courtesy of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development. At the time, the grant said simply that the officer should work to eliminate drugs in the public housing complex. To do so, officers interacted with schoolchildren and adults alike with the goal of preventing crime rather than always responding to illegal behavior after the fact.
As those initial grants expired, the county agreed to continue to fund and to expand the effort to Dade City through separate federal dollars. It is the same pot of money, called Community Development Block Grants, that financed the refurbishing of Tommytown and will be used to help construct a new community center in Lacoochee. However, federal rules allow only 15 percent of the county's annual allocation to be spent on public services, rather than construction or debt service. That left Officer Friendly competing with other agencies for a share of $360,000.
The county's desire to earmark additional help for the medically needy and the jobless can not be faulted. But, allowing Officer Friendly to vacate high-crime areas would have been an unacceptable by-product.
The commission and the sheriff are wise to continue the community investment in northeast Pasco.