A police officer should not have to face danger alone. This was demonstrated with tragic consequence Sunday night when a burglary suspect got Belleair Officer Jeffery Tackett's gun and left him bleeding to death on the ground. Published reports say Tackett radioed for backup before and after he was shot, but it came too late. Tackett was the only officer on patrol in Belleair that night. Police from neighboring cities, who use a different radio frequency, reportedly had to be called by telephone.
In most larger jurisdictions where officers patrol one to a car, a second officer is always dispatched immediately as a backup for any call, such as a burglary or robbery in progress, that signifies potential hazard. A city that is too small to have at least two officers on duty at all times is too small to have its own police department.
It has never made much sense that Pinellas County, with its small land mass and its large population, is balkanized into 24 municipalities as well as unincorporated enclaves large and small in which the county government is expected to provide municipal services. But while Pinellas seems fated to this political reality until the end of time _ egos being what they are _ it ought to be possible to consolidate more police services. Public safety and the safety of the public's police officers would be better served.
Four cities, in fact, already contract with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Department for all their police protection and all the beach communities north of Treasure Island, along with Belleair Bluffs and Kenneth City, rely on the sheriff's dispatchers during their late-night shifts. Belleair town officials last year solicited, but failed to take up, an offer from the Sheriff's Department to provide full-time dispatch service for only $23,000 down and $1,500 a year. Might that have saved Jeffery Tackett's life?
The four that pay the sheriff to do everything are Oldsmar, Safety Harbor, Seminole and South Pasadena. All have more population than Belleair and all but South Pasadena have larger tax bases, but they have made the sensible decision that the sheriff can give them better law enforcement.
For an annual contract price of $419,000, the Sheriff's Department guarantees to have two deputies on duty in each city at all times, and any other sheriff's cruisers nearby are always available for backup. That's probably cheaper than what it would cost any city to maintain a department of its own, and a lot safer for the officers as well.
_ Martin Dyckman