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New sheriff wants to mix high-tech with small town

With 3,400 employees and a $285-million annual budget, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is one of the nation's largest suburban law enforcement agencies.

But newly inducted Sheriff David Gee remembers when the department was more Andy Griffith Show than Law & Order, when roaming cows were more common than methamphetamine labs and youth gangs.

Monday, Gee unveiled a first-term plan that harkens back to the agency's rural, small-town roots _ yet embraces technology, high employee standards and aggressive crime reduction tactics.

"We've just gotten so big over the years," said Gee, who was sworn into office last week. "And sometimes you become the tail wagging the dog. I wanted our mission to be simple, to get right down to it. Because at the core of what we do, we serve and protect."

In Gee's plan, that means town hall meetings, citizen surveys and more neighborhood watch programs. It means going after aggressive and drunken drivers with unmarked cars and a 35-foot roving Breathalyzer vehicle, and training deputies to build the strongest possible traffic homicide cases for prosecution.

Gee plans to recruit volunteers and use civilians for administrative duties so that more trained law enforcement deputies are actually working in the community.

He already has reassigned 17 deputies and 10 detention deputies. He hopes the shift of duties will help the agency reduce crime and cut down on the number of traffic crashes and deaths.

For example, Gee is expanding the units that target habitual offenders. Now each Sheriff's Office district will have one detective who monitors the cases of repeat criminals and helps build a case for stiffer prosecution by the state, Gee said.

"We're going after the worst of the worst," he said.

SWAT team members will form "selective enforcement" units that go after high-risk and high-priority cases like gangs in Dover and Brandon or methamphetamine labs in southernmost Hillsborough.

"It could be drugs, it could be gangs," Gee said. "It could even be traffic."

Gee also wants his force to reflect the diversity of the people it serves, so this month the Sheriff's Office is launching a television campaign to recruit more minorities.

Gee also is raising the minimum age for becoming a deputy to 21. New hires must have an associate's degree or three years' experience in law enforcement or the military.

A math whiz who earned a degree from the University of Tampa, Gee's three-year strategic plan and 180-day action plan include plenty of measuring sticks.

He has created a research and development division that will analyze crime patterns, prioritize the budget and oversee new initiatives. He wants quarterly budget and performance reviews and an annual agency report. His command staff will meet each year to talk about what worked over the past 12 months, and what is needed for the year to come.

"Some of these things I do may not work, and I realize that," Gee said. "But I wanted to put ourselves under some pressure. To play a little Jeopardy. I'd rather we try it and see quickly that it doesn't work than keep spending money on it or doing it just because we've always done it."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or svansicklersptimes.com.

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