Largo police offer to expand territory
By MICHAEL SANDLER
LARGO -- Police Chief Lester Aradi says he was just trying to help.
But his efforts to ensure motorists get prompt help in traffic accidents have ruffled Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice.
"I see a hole in the system," Aradi said. "I'm not pointing a finger at who's responsible for that hole. I just want to plug it."
On Wednesday, Aradi sent Rice a letter saying his officers will handle accidents in unincorporated parts of the county that border Largo.
This had to be done because Florida Highway Patrol troopers and sheriff's deputies were taking too long to respond to some accidents, he said.
This didn't sit well with Rice, who felt Aradi was suggesting deputies weren't doing their job.
"I'm just surprised that the chief of police has volunteered to handle them outside the city under the assumption that we don't do it," Rice said Thursday.
Rice pointed to statistics that show deputies responded to 592 accidents in unincorporated Pinellas in 2000 and 586 from January to the start of November. But he said state law has hamstrung his deputies.
Troopers are responsible for investigating wrecks in unincorporated segments of the county. Moreover, only troopers can charge motorists with vehicular crimes, Rice said.
If troopers are tied up, deputies can handle accidents; but they cannot file criminal charges or use equipment to test whether someone was driving drunk, Rice and Aradi said.
Despite the awkwardness of the law, Rice said his deputies are responsive.
Jan Meeks begs to differ.
Her car was hit Tuesday in a lot at Starkey and Bryan Dairy roads, an unincorporated area in Largo. She called the Sheriff's Office after a witness gave her the license plate number of the car that hit hers. After being put on hold for 20 minutes, a deputy answered and told her to call Largo police.
She drove to the Largo Police Department, but an officer told her that the department couldn't handle the accident because it occurred outside the city. The officer recommended she drive to the Sheriff's Office to file a complaint. If she didn't get help, the officer told her to come back and he would help.
That's exactly what happened, Meeks said. The Sheriff's Office gave her a form and told her to contact the Highway Patrol.
She decided to return to the Police Department instead, where the officer who initially helped her discovered who hit her car and filled out a crash report.
"Without their help, I would probably be in limbo somewhere," she said. "I felt the sheriff's department gave me the runaround. They did not do a thing. I felt as though they were just not interested."
Aradi said that the root of the problem is twofold: There aren't enough troopers assigned to Pinellas County; and the ones who are, are overburdened.
Capt. Tom Knight of the Florida Highway Patrol, who commands the patrol in Pinellas, said response times for his officers average 23 minutes, but agreed they can occasionally take longer.
Knight said delays are an infrequent problem. But he acknowledged that his 28 patrol troopers are thinly spread and that he cannot guarantee when they will arrive at a wreck.
"We'd love to have a better working relationship with city police departments," Knight said. "We try to do the best we can with what we've got."
Aradi's new procedure will work this way:
Troopers and deputies will primarily handle accidents outside the city.
Should it take more than 20 minutes for them to respond, city police officers will ask motorists for permission to handle the wrecks.
Should charges need to be filed, the officers will either wait for troopers or forward information to the Highway Patrol.
Aradi said it was never his intent to cause problems.
"I feel compelled to act," said Aradi. "I'm not pointing a finger at Sheriff Rice. I have the greatest respect for his agency.
But I just see a hole in the system."
Aradi said the plan will be used unless it is overtured by city commissioners.
In the end, he said people such as Meeks aren't interested in jurisdiction debates. They just want help.
"She's going to walk away from this not caring who's responsible but that law enforcement failed her," he said. "Not a particular agency, but in general."
-- Michael Sandler can be reached at (727) 445-4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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