Editorial: New unit keeping Pinellas safer

Published Aug. 23, 2013

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri's decision to rededicate officers to serving warrants has proven to be the right course to make the community safer. The five deputies of the Violent Offender Warrant Unit have arrested 90 felons since April. The sheriff's office is sending a strong message that felons on the lam no longer have a virtual free pass.

In 2009, to save $1.9 million in a strained sheriff's budget, Gualtieri, then chief deputy to Sheriff Jim Coats, oversaw the controversial elimination of the 16-member warrants bureau. The move left Pinellas County as the only jurisdiction among Florida's seven most populated counties without a unit dedicated to serving arrest warrants. The burden fell to patrol deputies, who couldn't keep pace while also performing their patrol duties.

Three years later, fugitive Gregory Johns of Safety Harbor — who had eluded capture for 17 months on a felony drug charge warrant — raped and impregnated an 11-year-old girl. Lesson learned, Gualtieri set aside $400,000 a few months later to create the Violent Offender Warrant Unit. The smaller unit wisely has a narrower focus: arresting felons charged with violent crimes such as armed burglaries, sex offenses, homicides and kidnapping. Patrol deputies handle misdemeanor warrants.

With more than 13,000 felony warrants still outstanding in Pinellas County, there's plenty more work, but at least now it's getting done, one arrest at a time.