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Tensions rise at Pinellas sheriff’s candidate forum

Incumbent Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and challenger Eliseo Santana Jr. trade attacks as their race heats up.

Tensions rose in the race for Pinellas County sheriff during a candidate forum Wednesday, with attacks flying between the incumbent sheriff and his opponent.

Democratic nominee Eliseo Santana Jr. harped on Sheriff Bob Gualtieri’s record with rape investigations and with diversity in the agency during a virtual forum hosted by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.

Santana, who worked in the Sheriff’s Office for 30 years as a civilian technician, pointed out that the 32-member command staff under the Republican incumbent has only two people of color and said promotions are controlled by a “good ole boy” network.

Eliseo Santana Jr. is the Democratic candidate for Pinellas sheriff. [ Eliseo Santana Jr. ]

Gualtieri, in turn, hammered his opponent and former employee for his lack of law enforcement experience, saying that electing Santana “is like going to someone to have heart surgery who’s never been to medical school and never practiced medicine."

And the sheriff made it personal in the last minute of the forum, pointing out Santana’s history of foreclosures and, in 2013, a bankruptcy.

“I’m the only candidate in the race who hasn’t declared bankruptcy," Gualtieri said.

Related: Tampa Bay Times 2020 Voter Guide: 111 Local candidates on the issues

The forum underscored just how intense the race for Pinellas sheriff has gotten with the Nov. 3 election 20 days away and mail-in voting under way. While Santana is a lesser-known candidate who announced his campaign late in the game, the popular and well-funded Gualtieri was on the defense against what he said were “gutter politics” lodged by his opponent through a series of attack ads funded by the Florida Democratic Party.

The candidates addressed questions on topics ranging from community relations to employee recruitment to the role of police in schools.

Santana, who worked as a communications maintenance worker and supervisor over his career at the Sheriff’s Office, started off by saying he would prioritize community policing and address the agency’s “systemic racism” shown in the mostly white command staff.

He said he would bring body cameras to the Sheriff’s Office immediately and later implied that Gualtieri’s recent embrace of the technology was politically motivated. He vowed to form a citizens' review board to increase transparency and accountability in the community, and to focus police resources on the most serious, violent crimes.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. [ Times ]

He also said he supports forming a police-social work program to handle calls involving people with mental illness, substance abuse, or who are experiencing homelessness, similar to a plan announced by the St. Petersburg Police Department over the summer in response to ongoing protests against racism and police brutality.

“I am not going to impose the power and the authority of law enforcement on the people," Santana said. "I am going to bring the people into the equation to be able to truly address the issues that make us unsafe.”

Related: Pinellas sheriff’s race political ads spark anger across the aisle

The forum ended before Santana could address the personal finance issues that Gualtieri raised. Court records show he had a mortgage foreclosure in 2012, filed for bankruptcy in 2013 and had a final judgment against him in January for about $4,000 in credit card debt.

Santana told the Tampa Bay Times an interview that he, like many, was hit hard by the Great Recession and that his recent credit card debt was incurred to help his daughter with medical bills associated with a life-threatening pregnancy complication.

“I would do it again," he said. "I would spend whatever resources I have to keep my family safe.”

Related: Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is now the star cop in Florida politics. Who is he, and how did he get there?

Gualtieri said that many of the items on Santana’s wishlist are already in place. Body-worn cameras are coming, with a field trial set to start Oct. 26, he said. The agency has had a mental health unit since 2016 consisting of two deputy-social worker teams, and Gualtieri announced last month that he was expanding it to six teams.

“Treating people right and treating them fairly and not criminalizing mental health is always something I’ve been committed to," he said, "so Mr. Santana is way off base on his comments on that.”

And for people who are homeless, the sheriff said, there’s Pinellas Safe Harbor, an emergency shelter to divert them from the criminal justice system.

Related: Body cameras coming to Pinellas Sheriff’s Office

Gualtieri also pointed out his agency’s other arrest diversion programs. Pinellas leads the state in the use of juvenile diversion programs, which allow for kids accused of low-level, non-violent crimes to enroll in community service or counseling rather than get an arrest record. And, the sheriff said, he started a similar program for adults in 2017.

The sheriff spent a chunk of time defending himself against a series of mailers and a TV commercial that scrutinize his record on investigating rape cases.

The ads reference a Times investigation earlier this year that found the Sheriff’s Office only made arrests in 15 percent of its rape cases from 2014 to 2018 — yet reported clearing more than half of them. Experts pointed to several flaws in the way deputies handled those cases and victims. In some instances, deputies closed cases where they hadn’t identified a suspect, assigned a detective or even confirmed that a crime had occurred.

Gualtieri conceded his agency improperly categorized some rape cases, but said those cases weren’t moving forward anyway. He told the Times then that investigating cases with uncooperative victims was “a waste of time” — though experts who reviewed some case files told the Times that deputies used techniques that could have discouraged victims.

Related: How the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office boosts its rape stats without solving cases

The ads also touch on Gualtieri’s record on immigration, saying he supports President Donald Trump and his policy of “putting kids in cages,” referring to the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their families at the southern border.

Gualtieri said during the forum that the claim is “just a lie." However, the sheriff did work with federal officials to make it easier for local jails to hold undocumented immigrants accused of crimes on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

He also supports Trump and recently told the Times he would be voting for his reelection.

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