TAMPA — After five years in the U.S. Marine Corps, Cody Gibb felt an urge to try something new.
An uncle who retired from a career in law enforcement suggested he follow in his footsteps, and Gibb, a 24-year-old Brandon resident, liked the idea.
"The sense of duty and the brotherhood that you get from it were two big things for me," said Gibb, who most recently served as a sergeant with the 3rd Battalion 3rd Marines at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
Gibb is now an academy cadet headed for a job as a deputy with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. A few months ago, that wouldn't have been possible because he doesn't have an associate's degree or 60 hours of college course work. But under new hiring guidelines that took effect in late May, applicants with a high school diploma and at least three years of active duty military experience are eligible to apply.
The new rules, approved by Sheriff Chad Chronister, also relax the policy on tattoos and prior marijuana use.
The goal, officials say, is to cast a wider net in the applicant pool and jump start an effort to tackle a stubbornly persistent deputy shortage that has put stress on patrol deputies, stifled proactive police work and limited the ability to expand the agency's community outreach efforts.
"There are too many people in today's society who maybe can't afford college, but they've proven that they're loyal, they're dependable, they have a track record of making good decisions and they'd make a great deputy sheriff," Chronister said.
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The roots of the personnel shortage date back to about 2007, when then-Sheriff David Gee began to scale back on hiring to grapple with an economic downturn that would become known as the Great Recession, said Chief Deputy Donna Lusczynski.
"We didn't want to be put in a position where we had to terminate anybody because we didn't have the funding," she said.
That continued for the next five years. The ranks took another hit in 2011, when the Legislature cut the rate of return that benefits earn while employees participate in the state's five-year deferred retirement program. That prompted a rush to enroll in the program, known as DROP, before the changes took effect the following year, Lusczynski said.
At its peak in 2015, the Sheriff's Office had about 240 vacant law enforcement positions and 155 unfilled detention deputy positions, according to agency data. The law enforcement category includes patrol deputies, traffic crash investigators, community resource deputies and detectives, among other positions. Detention deputies staff the county jail facilities.
The deficit has since dropped to about 185 for law enforcement and 134 for detention positions.
At current staffing levels, the ratio of law enforcement deputies to residents in unincorporated Hillsborough is 1.3 per 1,000. By comparison, Lusczynski noted, the average among sheriff's offices in Florida in 2016 was 1.72 deputies. For police departments, it was 2.4 officers.
On the detention side, the agency is still a little short of its goal to have seven detention deputies for each housing unit in the jails on Orient and Falkenburg roads, Lusczynski said.
Officials say they are confident the Sheriff's Office has enough deputies to respond to emergency calls in a timely fashion and manage the inmate population. But response times to non-emergency calls are longer, and the agency has left what she called non-essential positions like community resource deputies unfilled.
"We try to reduce the impact on patrol because that's our backbone," Lusczynski said.
But deputies frequently voice their displeasure with staffing levels, at least anonymously, on the online forum leoaffairs.com. They complain about working a patrol zone alone, often running nonstop from call to call during their shift and feeling burned out.
"We have seen those comments and that is why Sheriff Chronister's primary goal is to hire more deputies and get them out on the street so we're staffed to the maximum and deputies do have the time for proactive work," Lusczynski said.
Officials have a long-term goal, too.
To bring the Sheriff's Office to its desired target of 1.6 law enforcement deputies per 1,000 residents, the agency would have to fill its current vacancies and then add 53 more positions in each of the next five years at a total cost of roughly $26 million. That would require asking the County Commission for more money.
"We haven't had the discussion with them yet because we haven't filled the vacancies we have," Lusczynski said.
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The Sheriff's Office used to have the toughest education requirement of any of the larger law enforcement agencies in the Tampa Bay area.
Under the old hiring guidelines, applicants who wanted to join as a law enforcement deputy trainee needed to be 21 years old, with an associate's degree or 60 credit hours of college coursework. The new guidelines allow an applicant to qualify with a high school diploma or equivalency diploma and either three years of active military experience or three years working for the same full-time employer. The minimum age 21 has not changed.
The education and experience requirements for detention deputy applicants — at least 19 years old with a high school diploma or GED — also remain the same.
The new guidelines bring the agency more in line with others in the region that compete for personnel. The Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando county sheriff's offices require a high school diploma or GED. The Tampa and St. Petersburg police departments allow three years of active duty military experience in the place of college coursework.
Hillsborough's changes also account for the growing popularity of tattoos and society's relaxed views toward marijuana.
Tattoos on the hands and neck used to be automatic disqualifiers. Now ink in those areas might get a pass depending on the type, size and exact location and whether they can be covered. The policy requiring arm tattoos to be covered with neutral clothing has not changed. Face tattoos are still forbidden.
The old policy forbade applicants from using any drugs within the last three years or after age 30. Now the rules call for no marijuana use in the last two years, and no other drug use in the last three years.
Officials emphasized that new guidelines only help more candidates get a foot in the door. Successful applicants still must complete the agency's law enforcement academy at Hillsborough Community College, then post-academy and field training.
"We're going to teach you how to do the job and then later on if you want to go to college, which I certainly encourage, we have tuition reimbursement to help you go to school," Chronister said.
There is evidence the changes are working, said Michelle Hamilton, human resources director.
Each month, the agency offers two opportunities to take the physical battery test that every applicant must pass. Prior to the new guidelines, an average of 60 to 80 people took the test each month, Hamilton said. That jumped to 90 in June and then 112 last month.
Cody Gibb, the former Marine sergeant, was among them.
A graduate of Lake Wales Senior High in Polk County, he said he chose the Sheriff's Office because he was impressed by the recruiter's pitch and he'll still be close to his family. If he hadn't been eligible here, he said he probably would have joined U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
"Transitioning from the military can be difficult, so when Hillsborough switched up their guidelines it definitely opened my opportunities," Gibb said last week during a lunch break at the law enforcement academy on the Hillsborough Community College's Ybor City campus. "I'm just happy to be here."
Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.