By Rachel Brown Hackney
How does the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office’s staffing on Siesta Key compare to what it was more than a decade ago?
During the November Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting, island business and property owner Michael Holderness raised that issue after Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation, completed an update to members about crime on the island in October.
“I think you guys do an awesome job,” Holderness began. Then he asked Smith, “Do you think you’re short-staffed?”
It seemed to him, Holderness continued, that twice as many deputies were assigned to the Key in 2006, compared to the current staffing level. Yet, “We have twice as many people [on the island],” Holderness added.
Smith pointed out that he joined the Sheriff’s Office in 2006, so he was uncertain of the number of deputies on the Key on a routine basis that year.
“You need a job?” Smith asked Holderness with a big smile, prompting laughter among the approximately 40 audience members.
SNL posed Holderness’ question to the Sheriff’s Office. In response, Major Paul Richard, commander of the Law Enforcement Division, offered plenty of details during a Nov. 14 telephone interview.
The short answer, Richard said, is that in 2006, the Sheriff’s Office had a sergeant and five deputies assigned to the Key.
Today, he continued, Sgt. Smith is joined by four full-time deputies plus two full-time Mounted Patrol officers. That has been the approximate staffing level for well over a decade, Richard noted.
Additionally, Richard said, another deputy is assigned to the island for every shift, including weekends and holidays. That person does not report to Smith, Richard noted. Instead, that deputy serves in a general capacity on the island, Richard added.
Of course, he continued, during the prime spring break months of March and April — and on July Fourth — the Sheriff’s Office will have 10 to 20 deputies on the Key from 8 a.m. until shortly after midnight each day.
“We never want to under-police,” he explained. At the same time, Richard pointed out, “We don’t want to over-police. That can be just as bad in today’s world.”
Richard stressed, “It’s a delicate balance.”
“There’s no community that gets more attention [in the county] than Siesta Key,” whether on the beach or in Siesta Village, he continued. “We move folks to where the people are.”
Then Richard provided a bit of a history lesson about Sheriff’s Office staffing of the Law Enforcement Division.
“Some time ago,” he said, “in the mid-‘90s, we had community policing storefronts,” including one located in Siesta Center on Ocean Boulevard. As many as eight deputies were assigned to each storefront, he noted.
On Siesta, Richard said, residents and visitors not only saw deputies driving all terrain vehicles (ATVs) — as deputies still do today — but Sheriff’s Office personnel also used bicycles in patrolling in those days.
Beginning with the Great Recession, he continued, “We’ve had to be much smarter” about staffing. He added that he believed the office had yet to get back to the total number of positions it had decades ago. The force reduction began before Sheriff William Balkwill retired and Sheriff Tom Knight took over after the 2008 election, Richard pointed out.
A slide the Sheriff’s Office staff prepared for the County Commission during the June budget workshops showed that the number of authorized positions in the 2006-07 fiscal year was 1,050; of those, 424 were sworn law enforcement officers. This year, Knight’s budget called for a total of 994 employees, with 436 sworn law enforcement officers.
Ultimately, all the storefront community policing centers were closed, Richard noted. The Sheriff’s Office staff on Siesta relocated to a substation within the Public Safety Building at the beach, Richard pointed out.
That new office space was part of the county’s $21.5-million renovations of Siesta Public Beach, which were completed in early 2016.
One other point worth noting, he continued, is that only in recent years has the Mounted Patrol Division gained full-time deputies. In fact, Richard said, Sgt. Smith on Siesta supervises that division, as the horses often are used on the Key, especially during periods when the crowds are at their largest levels. Spring break is one of those times, he noted.
“There’s a perception that it’s a safe place,” Richard explained of the public’s general view of an area with officers on horseback.
Even so, he pointed out, “We don’t make a lot of arrests [on the island]. … I think we’re doing a pretty good job.”
And countywide, he added, “We’re pretty comfortable with our level of service …”
October crime reports dominated by Access 8 incidents
Sgt. Arik Smith’s report usually is first on the Siesta Key Association monthly agenda after adoption of the minutes of the previous month’s meeting. However, on Nov. 7, he apologized for arriving late, well after the session was underway, indicating that he had been juggling a variety of issues that day.
As for crime in October, he said, only about 4% of the incidents on the Key that month were of the most serious nature, which the FBI classifies as Part 1 crimes.
“We did have a rash of vehicle burglaries at Access 8,” he pointed out. Officers believe that a team out of the Tampa area was involved in what the Sheriff’s Office calls “smash and grabs,” Smith continued.
“It happens from time to time,” he explained. “We’re a little more susceptible to it sometimes” because of the ease with which people can drive into Sarasota County off Interstate 75.
Smash-and-grab cases, he continued, are “a trend around the nation.”
A team of perpetrators will find a public parking lot and begin looking into car windows to see if they can spy items of value. If they see something, Smith added, then they will smash the window and take what they saw. “They’re back on the interstate and gone before you know what happened.”
SKA Director Eddie Ward indicated that he was familiar with such incidents, pointing to his having been told that the perpetrators will “all laugh really loud together … so you don’t hear glass shattering.”
Last year, Smith noted, a set of smash-and-grab burglaries was reported at the county’s Twin Lakes Park during a Little League game.
Smith urged the audience members not to leave valuables in sight in their vehicles.
Six of the eight vehicle burglaries on the Key in October were part of the smash-and-grab case, he added. The other two involved vehicles that had been left unlocked, he pointed out. “So I’m going to keep preaching: Lock your doors.”
Other than those incidents, Smith said, “For the most part, we’ve had sporadic thefts.” A kayak and an untended purse at the beach were two examples.
However, he continued, a couple of residential burglaries had been reported. In one situation, Smith noted, a person had been living in a house that belongs to seasonal residents. In another case, the homeowners found signs of forced entry, “but nothing was stolen.”
It is not uncommon, he indicated, for the Sheriff’s Office to get reports of thefts from homes after snowbirds begin returning to the Key for the winter season.
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