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    A Times Editorial

    Troopers, not deputies or police, should respond


    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published December 9, 2001

    Largo police Chief Lester Aradi's heart was in the right place. He had heard people complain that Florida Highway Patrol troopers and Pinellas County sheriff's deputies were taking too long to respond to traffic accidents in unincorporated county areas bordering Largo.

    So Aradi sent a letter to Sheriff Everett Rice that said Largo officers would handle those accidents from now on.

    People who have been around Pinellas County for a while won't be surprised to hear that Rice didn't take Aradi's letter very well.

    But Aradi hasn't been in Pinellas County long. He came to Largo from Buffalo Grove, Ill., in February. So perhaps he wasn't aware that law enforcement agencies in Pinellas County can be extremely territorial and that Rice has taken over policing from several city police departments using the argument that the Sheriff's Office could deliver better service.

    Aradi says he didn't intend to offend anyone. "I see a hole in the system. I'm not pointing a finger at who's responsible for that hole. I just want to plug it."

    We'll point a finger -- straight at the Florida Highway Patrol.

    The FHP's primary responsibilities are to enforce laws on the state's highways and investigate accidents. But there are only 28 troopers assigned to Pinellas County, and Capt. Tom Knight, who is in charge of the patrol in Pinellas, says he can't say how long it will take a trooper to arrive at an accident scene. Response time in Pinellas averages 23 minutes, he said, but many a motorist has waited longer. If the FHP takes longer than 30 minutes, the Sheriff's Office tries to respond, which, of course, adds to the time a motorist has to wait.

    It isn't just Pinellas that has such problems. Another nearby example is Pasco County, where there are 22 FHP troopers assigned and response times average 40-45 minutes. And while there have been complaints from troopers statewide about being spread too thin and overburdened with paperwork, a Times study earlier this year showed that some of the Pasco troopers produced little during their shifts, responding to one or no accidents and writing few or no tickets.

    Neither the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which responds to hundreds of accidents each year in unincorporated parts of the county, nor the Largo Police Department should be forced to do the work of the FHP under any except the most extraordinary circumstances. When a local police chief feels compelled to provide the officers to do the FHP's job, something is broken that needs to be fixed.

    The Florida Highway Patrol is being criticized statewide for its well-documented shortcomings. In the decade of the 1990s, total arrests, speeding tickets and DUI arrests were down, as was the percentage of work hours spent on patrol. There have been cases of botched investigations, scandalous behavior by troopers and uneven discipline. And the patrol's ineptitude at communicating with the public, media and other law enforcement and judicial agencies is legendary.

    But none of that matters to the distraught accident victim standing on a dark highway beside a crumpled car. That person just wants help, quickly.

    Aradi is putting the needs of the public first when he offers to send his own officers outside of Largo to do the job.

    But it is the FHP that ought to be on the scene.

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