During a time of intense scrutiny of law enforcement nationwide, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has been a transparent, accessible and progressive leader. He has steered innovative efforts like diversion programs and homeless shelters, and has promptly acknowledged when his department fell short of expectations. Those are among the reasons why Gualtieri faces only token opposition, and he deserves another four years.
Gualtieri, 55, was a 15-year deputy before attending Stetson College of Law. He practiced law for about four years and became general counsel to the Sheriff's Office in 2006. Two years later, Sheriff Jim Coats named him chief deputy and general counsel to guide the daily operation of the office. When Coats retired in 2011, Gov. Rick Scott appointed Gualtieri as sheriff, overseeing 1,500 sworn deputies and the county jail. He won election to his first four-year term in 2012.
As the county's top law enforcement officer, Gualtieri has vision that goes far beyond responding to emergency calls. He helped lead the effort in 2011 to open Safe Harbor, which provides shelter for the homeless who might otherwise end up in a jail cell at greater taxpayer expense. He plans to expand its services, including counseling and case management. He is about to launch a mental health pilot project that would send social workers along with deputies to mental health calls. The goal is to cut down Baker Act admissions of people who are a danger to themselves or to others and steer them into services that can help them. This summer, he put the finishing touches on a pre-arrest diversion program for minor crimes. Instead of being arrested and booked into jail, offenders are directed to community service, counseling, drug treatment, restitution or a combination. The program could enable many Pinellas residents to have an easier time getting jobs and loans.
James McLynas, 57, is a no-party candidate who owns a collision repair and inspection business. He decided to run in 2013 in the midst of a contentious divorce, during which he says he was harassed and followed by Pinellas deputies. He makes a number of baseless accusations against Gualtieri and is a not a credible candidate.
Gualtieri does not favor 24/7 use of body cameras, which have become more popular among some law enforcement leaders and civil rights activists. He does not oppose them completely, but cites privacy concerns and the costs of record-keeping as reasons not to outfit every deputy. Cruisers are equipped with cameras, and Gualtieri is an advocate for transparency and says law enforcement should self-report major incidents, including officer-involved shootings, to the FBI. He makes himself visible during big news events, does outreach with church and community groups and errs on the side of releasing information to the public. He works well with other county officials and with police chiefs throughout Pinellas, and the department rivalries and lack of cooperation that once created dangerous situations are long gone.
Pinellas is fortunate to have a sheriff as thoughtful and as open as Gualtieri, who has used the office to promote progressive change in ways that stretch far beyond traditional law enforcement duties. For Pinellas County sheriff, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Bob Gualtieri.