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Good steps in law enforcement across (most of) Tampa Bay | Editorial
Police, prosecutors look to make the criminal justice system work better for everybody
Teenagers at the Hillsborough County Juvenile Detention Center East. County leaders Thursday announced an expansion of a civil citation program for juvenile offenders who commit minor crimes. The aim is to allow first-time offenders to avoid having an arrest on their record. [Times | 2016]
Teenagers at the Hillsborough County Juvenile Detention Center East. County leaders Thursday announced an expansion of a civil citation program for juvenile offenders who commit minor crimes. The aim is to allow first-time offenders to avoid having an arrest on their record. [Times | 2016]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Sep. 12, 2020

Police and prosecutors in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties took important steps in recent days to move law enforcement and public safety in a better direction. These new efforts will better serve juveniles, minorities, police, taxpayers and those struggling with mental health issues. And they stand in sharp contrast with what’s happening at the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, which even in 2020 sees harassment as a legitimate tool in the pursuit of law and order.

Hillsborough officials announced they would expand their juvenile citation program. Juvenile diversion, which aims to spare young nonviolent offenders a criminal record, has been in place for more than a decade. But Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren expanded its use after winning election in 2016, working with Hillsborough’s sheriff and chief judge to expand the number of offenses that qualified for consideration.

These officials say the program is working, and they are moving to allow more children to participate. Parental consent will no longer be required for juveniles to enroll. And sheriff’s deputies and police officers must now consult with a supervisor when considering the arrest of a child under 12. This is a sensible strategy for giving children a second chance instead of a police record that could haunt them throughout their adult lives.

In Tampa, Mayor Jane Castor and the City Council announced they would work together on a smarter strategy for police responding to mental health calls. Council Member John Dingfelder wanted mental health professionals more involved in these highly unpredictable interactions. Castor said she would explore outside grants for pairing officers with civilian professionals, a good first step in finding common ground. And Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan has appointed an advisory board to solicit feedback from a cross-section of the community, which should build public trust in the wake of protests for police reform.

In Pinellas, State Attorney Bernie McCabe has cleared a St. Petersburg police officer who last month shot and killed a mentally ill man. But in a letter to St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway, the top Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor noted that only one officer was left to deal with Jeffrey Haarsma at the shooting scene, despite a history of calls to Haarsma’s apartment and a display of “some form of violence” toward police.

McCabe said the fatal encounter underscored the need for officers to receive crisis intervention training. Holloway agreed, promising that officers would be better trained and staffed when taking someone into custody. The chief said he is taking steps to ensure more officers undergo the crisis intervention course, and he changed the dispatch system so that police responding to an apartment complex could see a log of all calls from the property — not only those from a single address — giving officers on the scene a fuller picture of the environment they’re encountering.

Meanwhile in Pasco County, Sheriff Chris Nocco has created an intelligence system to continuously monitor and harass Pasco County residents, a recent Tampa Bay Times investigation found. The agency generates lists of people it considers likely to break the law, based on arrest histories and other analyses, then sends deputies to find and interrogate those people. Criminal justice experts told the Times they were stunned by the practice, comparing it to child abuse, mafia harassment and surveillance associated with authoritarian regimes.

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It’s good to see most area law enforcement agencies stepping up to try to improve the criminal justice system. But the fuller picture of what’s happening — even only here in the Tampa Bay area — shows how far the system still needs to go.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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