Four years ago, as different groups and departments in a small Florida community fought for funding, a controversial decision was made to cut the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office’s fugitive unit — a team of 16 detectives whose sole focus was to track down offenders in their county for outstanding warrants and keep the urban population as safe as possible.
Bob Gualtieri was appointed as sheriff in 2011 and elected in 2012 — despite the persistent budget cuts — felt the need to reinstate the fugitive unit. He knew a 16-member team was far out of reach, so the team would have to work smaller and smarter.
Over 600 positions had been eliminated in Pinellas County in 2009; $108M was cut from the annual budget.
Of the 67 counties that make up Florida, Pinellas County is the only one that is 100 percent urban. With 916,000 people across 280 square miles, it is the densest and the second smallest county geographically — which means a lot is happening in a small space.
Before the fugitive unit was reinstated, there were approximately 45,000 active warrants — and the community depended on officers to pursue those wanted fugitives among their countless other tasks. Because no one was dedicated to searching for and arresting offenders, they were living freely among innocent residents, and even repeating offenses.
In April 2013, Sheriff Gualtieri brought a modest version of the fugitive force back to the streets, made up of four deputies and one sergeant.
Due to their drop in manpower, the focus has inevitably shifted.
“We’re not going after everyone,” explained Gualtieri. “People that are charged with serious crimes and sex offenses are being sought out [primarily.]”
There has also been a significant change in the way the unit interacts with the state attorney’s office and the court system to work together administratively, which has resulted in an overall better management of warrants.
Since the unit’s reinstatement in April, about 10,000 fugitive warrants have been expunged, closed, or otherwised removed, reducing the number to approximately 35,000.
On May 6, the sheriff’s office received information from a department several counties away that a subject wanted for second degree murder had left their jurisdiction and was headed toward Pinellas County. The subject was in a stolen a car, which Pinellas’ violent offender unit was able to track using OnStar. The unit set up surveillance at the address they had tracked down and watched a second vehicle arrive at the address within moments. The vehicle was pulled over and the murder suspect was found in the back seat and taken in. It was a simple arrest that wouldn’t have happened without the existence of the unit.
1. Make sure your detectives are tech-savvy. This was an important criteria in evaluating detectives in the reinstated fugitive unit. They have a skill set in social media and other means of communication — critical because today’s criminals tend to leave an electronic trail.
“You have to work smart to be efficient. If you don’t have [tech-savvy] deputies on your team, provide them with a significant amount of database training. The success that we’ve had so far is because we maximized our use of technology,” said Gualtieri.
2. Implement a software tracking system/ case management system. One of the flaws the original fugitive unit had was letting subjects drop off the radar if they weren’t immediately found.
“Make sure that warrant doesn’t get tossed in a drawer or filing cabinet. Once you’ve made every effort to find a subject and that initial effort ceases, come back to them in 30 or 60 days.”
When there is no system in place, a subject can return to town — maybe even suddenly appear on Facebook again and become an easy target — but if you’re not reminded to check up on them again, they can hide in plain sight until it’s too late.
In every city, budgets dictate the amount of resources each department has. While some departments are buying armored SWAT vehicles, others are trying to keep enough officers on the street to protect their city. There is no question that the 16-person fugitive unit saw more success than a team of five — but as long as the team continues to work smarter and seek out the tools available, it’s moving in the right direction.