TALLAHASSEE — Florida's law enforcement agencies are struggling under the weight of more demands on their time and not enough money to keep pace.
The burden, which has gotten worse the past few years, is having a widespread impact on solving crimes as well as protecting law enforcement officers and the public:
• Processing crime scene evidence in state-run labs is taking twice as long in some cases as it was three years ago.
• More than a quarter of the state's Highway Patrol officers are driving pursuit vehicles that will be "increasingly unsafe" if not replaced, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
• And poor pay has resulted in massive staff turnover, forcing the state to provide less experienced detectives to help local authorities solve serious crimes including homicide.
While the state has used its surplus to cut taxes by more than $400 million, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and the Florida Highway Patrol have struggled to maintain some services, most notably processing evidence in the crime lab.
In a Tampa news conference last week, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi bemoaned that lack of FDLE funding is one reason thousands of rape kits have never been processed to potentially thwart future sexual assaults.
But that's just one example.
Beyond public safety risks, underfunding has had a trickle-down effect, forcing local governments to spend more on services that used to be handled nearly exclusively by the state.
"We're seeing that when the state is cutting funding for their agencies or not funding them, it's putting a burden back on the counties," Sarasota Sheriff Tom Knight told his county commissioners in lobbying for a budget increase.
Knight has hired more deputies to respond to traffic crashes that once were handled by the Florida Highway Patrol, and he's sending out more crime evidence to private DNA-testing labs at local taxpayer expense to get results back sooner to make up for the state's budget deficiencies.
St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar said in his 34 years in law enforcement he never thought he'd be recruiting microbiologists. But to deal with the state's crime lab issues, he's hiring his own analysts to process evidence and shipping other samples to private labs.
"Cutting taxes is a great thing," Shoar said. "But sooner or later you have to ask, 'What do you want your community to look like?' "
The biggest problem for local law enforcement is the state's slowing turnaround on crime lab samples needed to help solve cases. In 2012, FDLE told Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet that labs were taking on average 22 days to process chemistry evidence requests, 43 days to clear requests for latent finger prints, and 48 days to complete computer evidence submissions. All three areas now take at least twice as long to process.
Other needs, like processing DNA has jumped from a 74-day wait to 85 days and finishing a request on trace evidence from a crime scene has gone from taking 131 days on average to 176 days.
That doesn't even count potentially thousands of rape kits sitting in evidence rooms around the state that have never been submitted to FDLE for analysis, as Bondi pointed out last week. She said if not for crime lab backups, the state could be more aggressive in processing rape kits to collect DNA samples and comparing them to other crimes.
Delays have increasingly pushed counties to rely more on private labs to process DNA and other evidence. FDLE labs are free to counties to process evidence, while private labs can cost thousands of dollars per sample depending on the timing and complexity. Five counties, including Broward, Miami-Dade and Pinellas, have funded their own crime labs to avoid using FDLE entirely.
While FDLE labs take 85 days on average to complete DNA lab tests, according to agency records, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he is getting results back from Pinellas' lab in less than 30.
County taxpayers pay more than $1.1 million a year to fund the lab. "But the important thing is that it's getting the job done," Gualtieri said.
FDLE Commissioner Richard Swearingen told Scott and the Cabinet last month that the crime lab is struggling in part because it can't hold on to lab technicians. In the last six years, FDLE has lost 127 crime lab analysts and crime lab analyst supervisors, representing a turnover of 44 percent.
Swearingen said once FDLE trains workers for the lab, they are being recruited away for higher paying jobs because FDLE wages have been uncompetitive. And they are not just losing them to the private sector.
"They're grossly underpaid compared to the competition," Swearingen said.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the average salary for crime lab analysts in Tallahassee is just $39,370. That is almost $20,000 less than the national average and at least $10,000 less than analysts are paid in state capitals in Georgia, Tennessee or Louisiana.
It's one of the reasons Swearingen said he is asking this fall for Scott and the Cabinet to raise the pay for a crime lab analyst by $10,000 and $12,000 for a senior analyst.
But he also wants more analysts on his team.
The state has 286 crime lab analysts and supervisors in six regional facilities. He wants to add 22 workers and invest $4.2 million annually, which would be the largest single-year increase for the lab since Scott and the present members of the Florida Cabinet took office in 2011. Swearingen said at least five hires would be assigned to handling incoming chemistry samples, six would deal with latent prints, and five would handle computer and digital evidence issues.
Pay is also a problem in retaining experienced FDLE criminal investigators. Swearingen said sheriffs and local police departments have told him they don't feel FDLE has the level of experience it once did to help them solve major crimes.
Overall, Swearingen is asking for a $35 million budget increase, which includes 116 new employees.
Though FDLE's workload has increased, funding for the agency's two primary roles has remained flat. In the state budget through June 30, 2012, FDLE received $127 million for its criminal investigations and forensics division, according to records. But in the year that ended in June 2015, that funding was still at $127 million, despite increasing demand.
Few politicians have been more passionate about the FDLE's issues than Bondi. She said as a former prosecutor, there is nothing worse than waiting for evidence to be processed that could delay an arrest or conviction of a potential criminal. She called it "one of my top priorities."
Bondi said in an interview that she will lobby the Legislature aggressively to get that funding approved for the crime lab. "You can't put a price on public safety," she said.
State Sen. Joe Negron, chairman of the Senate criminal justice appropriations committee, said he is alarmed that FDLE quarterly reports show dramatically slower turnaround times for evidence compared to just three years ago. Negron, R-Stuart, guaranteed that lab delays will be "front and center" in the next legislative session.
FDLE isn't the only public safety branch affected. The Florida Highway Patrol has been dealing with similar fiscal woes for years.
The governor signed a budget this year to give $5,000 raises to troopers in six counties, but that may not be enough. Shoar, the St. Johns County sheriff, and Knight, a former FHP captain, said they are now able to hire away FHP troopers because they can pay more than the state is paying them.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which runs FHP, has asked for $39 million more in 2016. One of its top priorities is spending $9 million to replace pursuit vehicles that are aging fast due to the 23,000 miles the cars are driven annually. On average, the Highway Patrol can only afford to replace cars after they have racked up 157,000 miles.
"These older, less reliable vehicles will become increasingly unsafe to operate," FHP officials warned the Cabinet in their annual budget request.
Shoar said in the tax-adverse environment that permeates government, it is hard to get support for increased funding for anything, even public safety. But if the Legislature does not invest more in law enforcement, he said, it will come with a price.
"You get what you pay for," he said.
Contact Jeremy Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.