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Patrol deputies lose cell phones

After seeing January's costs, Sheriff Bob White asked deputies to restrict their use of cellular phones. But February's bill was even higher.

By TAMARA LUSH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- Just three months after hundreds of Pasco County sheriff's deputies were given cell phones, Sheriff Bob White has taken those phones back.

The reason, said an agency spokesman, is that the phone bills are too high.

"In January, (Sheriff White) asked for everyone to restrict usage of the cell phones," said spokesman Kevin Doll. "And in February, the bill went up. And that's when the decision was made to have the phones returned."

From Oct. 1 to Feb. 22, the agency's cell phone bill was $26,624, which is nearly half of the $60,000 earmarked for cellular calls for the fiscal year.

Even though the phones came in handy to talk to residents and others in the department, they were an "added convenience" and not a necessity for patrol officers, Doll said.

Cell phones also provided a backup method of communication to the agency's outdated radio system, which is notorious for its "dead zones" within the county.

Still, said Doll, "we were able to conduct the business of law enforcement before we got the cell phones."

Other sheriff's agencies contacted by the Times on Thursday said that they do not give cell phones to patrol officers, although many use their own phones while on duty. The Hernando, Citrus, Hillsborough and Pinellas sheriff's offices allow the top brass, high-ranking officers and some detectives to use the phones and usually have a mobile phone on hand for the shift sergeants.

Pasco patrol deputies had until Thursday to turn in their cell phones, and as of 5 p.m., about 200 officers had handed them over, Doll said.

Not all agency employees had to give the phones back. Command staff, detectives and high-ranking officers kept their phones.

In October and November, former Sheriff Lee Cannon handed out 65 phones, Doll said. Another 330 were given to deputies -- mostly patrol officers -- in December. Still others already had cell phones. The agency had bought a "minute block plan," where each user could talk for 170 minutes per month without being charged extra, Doll said.

It is unclear how many deputies used the cell phones for personal use, but deputies reimbursed the agency for any personal calls they made, Doll said.

When Sheriff White took office in January, he scrutinized the cell phone bill and thought it was high, Doll said. The agency did not provide an exact amount, but its February bill was even higher: $7,172.

Doll said White plans to ask for more money for cell phone calls in next year's budget, and until then will make some phones available for everyday use.

Deputies who use their own mobile phones for work will be reimbursed, Doll said.

"Without having issued phones to deputies before, we didn't know what the use would be like and we didn't know what the cost would be," Doll said.

- Tamara Lush is the police reporter in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6245 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6245. Her e-mail address is lush@sptimes.com.

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