With November’s arrival comes a year’s worth of holiday anticipation and anxious preparation.
As we begin fighting the crowds at shopping malls and filling our calendars with decadent family meals and holiday events, it can be easy to forget that some families struggle to provide even the most basic necessities.
Although several organizations coordinate holiday fundraisers and charity events, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has the unique opportunity to give back to children and families with whom they have met and interacted, sometimes on multiple occasions.
Putting names and faces to the recipients of our holiday giving is added incentive to PCSO members who dedicate additional time and effort to benefitting the less fortunate during the season.
For the 14th consecutive year, this month, the Sheriff’s Office will kick off the holiday giving season through a partnership with the Indian Rocks Beach Rotary Club, Beach Community Food Pantry at Calvary Episcopal Church, Pinellas Suncoast Fire Rescue District, and Publix.
The partnership aims to limit the number of families who go hungry by delivering food to families who otherwise could not afford traditional holiday meals around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.
Volunteers load patrol cars with hearty Publix meals, including items like fully cooked turkeys, cornbread, mashed potatoes, green beans, loaves of bread, and more, and deputies deliver them to families whom they have identified in their daily work within the community.
Once we finish off the pumpkin pie and pack up the cornucopia, the PCSO sets its sights on hosting the largest law enforcement-organized holiday charity fundraiser in the Tampa Bay Area, which has raised more than $500,000 in donations and proceeds since its inception 24 years ago.
Ride & Run With The Stars, which this year will be Saturday, December 2nd, is a day’s worth of family activity including a 5K chipped race, 10K and 25-mile bike rides, a “Challenge” 5K run and 25-mile bike ride combination, and a “Family Fun” 1-mile walk or skate.
Post-race activities include the opportunity to refuel with food truck fare, a Kids Zone with arts and crafts and a climbing wall, a fly-in visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus on the Sheriff’s Office helicopter, and a silent auction with tables full of gift baskets, vacation tickets, gift certificates, and more.
The only thing more rewarding than a day of family exercise and activity is knowing that the proceeds support the Sheriff’s Christmas Sharing Project, through which PCSO members use the money raised to shop for holiday gifts, clothing, food, and other necessities for families in need.
Like the food drive partnership, the gift packages assembled during Ride & Run With The Stars’ shopping day are hand-delivered by familiar-faced deputies.
If you are interested in getting involved with Ride & Run With The Stars, whether by registering for a race, ordering a t-shirt, sponsoring the event, or making a donation, contact Lieutenant Joe Gerretz at 727-582-5960, and visit www.rideandrunwiththestars.com for more information.
In the meantime, let me be the first to wish you a happy thanksgiving, happy holidays, and happy giving!
This month, the witches, zombies, and ghouls will come knocking on your door in celebration of Halloween. Although, as always, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office will be on the lookout, there are a number of precautions you and your families can take to ensure everyone comes home safely.
As you prepare for the spookiest night of the year, be deliberate with every decision. When you're setting up your haunted house with cotton cobwebs, cardboard tombstones, and plastic spiders, be mindful of your visitors' safety. Establish a clear walkway free of tripping hazards (whether they are leashes and hoses or rubber snakes and eyeballs), and keep flammable materials away from fire. You can avoid fire by lighting your jack-o-lanterns with holiday lights instead of candles.
As important as it is to WOW 'em with your clever ingenuity, costumes should also be sensible: If your children are planning to wear masks, make sure they can see clearly while wearing them. Even if it doesn't fit their characters, ensure your children travel with flashlights so they can see where they're going, and attach reflective tape to their costumes so that vehicles can see them coming.
Always accompany young children as they trick-or-treat, and keep them in your sight at all times. Remember, they might not be the only little zombies running around! If you decide that your children are responsible enough to trick-or-treat without supervision, have a serious conversation to establish who they will walk with, what route they will take, what they should do in an emergency, and what time they should return home.
Whether or not you plan to chaperone this year's trick-or-treating excursion, review basic Halloween do's and don'ts with your children: Cross the street only at crosswalks and corners; don't approach houses that are unlit or appear to be empty; don't enter a stranger's house; and only eat individually wrapped candy - leave the loose treats or baked goods for the ghosts and goblins.
Likewise, instruct Halloween enthusiasts to keep the "tricks" to knock-knock jokes. Vandalism is a serious crime. Talk to your children about proper trick-or-treating behavior and manners, the consequences of their actions, and saying no to peer pressure. We'd hate for his/her jailbird costume to go from fun to functional.
Last but not least: Don't eat too much candy - you'll thank us later!
Since 2015, there have been 392 opioid-related deaths in Pinellas County. Unfortunately, the numbers are rising.
The average 9.7 deaths-per-month in 2015 has almost doubled to 17 deaths-per-month in 2016 and so far in 2017, which means a 78-percent increase in opioid-related deaths from 2015 to 2016.
This information, obtained from the Pinellas County Medical Examiner's Office, albeit staggering, does not reflect the average 150.3, 186.3, and 209.7 patients-per-month in 2015, 2016, and 2017, respectively, whom Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) has treated with Naloxone.
Naloxone, commonly referred to as "Narcan," is an "opioid antagonist." The nasal spray, once administered, counters the effects of overdose and puts patients into immediate opioid withdrawal.
Sometimes referred to as the "miracle drug," Narcan has, arguably, prevented another 5,296 overdose deaths since 2015.
The question: Why has the number of overdoses increased so drastically during the past few years?
The answer: fentanyl
Fentanyl, which hit the Pinellas County drug scene in the early 2000s but has become prevalent within the last six to eight months, is a powerful synthetic opioid similar to, but 80- to 100-times stronger than, morphine. To put this in perspective, the estimated lethal dose of fentanyl in humans is 2 milligrams. A one-gram sugar packet would contain up to 500 lethal doses.
When law enforcement eradicated the rampant "pill mills" that distributed drugs like oxycodone a few years ago, addicts turned to heroin - and now, fentanyl - to satisfy their addictions.
Although some drug-users choose to take fentanyl due to its accessibility - available for purchase on the dark web - and its cheaper, "cleaner" high, as described by informants, many addicts ingest the drug unintentionally.
"I think the biggest thing is that dealers are cutting their illegal drugs with the fentanyl to create more product at a cheaper price," said Narcotics Division Sergeant Jose Camacho. "That affects the addicts, because they're taking the same amount they usually take, but now with the fentanyl added, it creates a deadly cocktail, and they overdose and die."
This clandestine mixture puts at risk not only drug-users, but also deputies. When undercover detectives purchase narcotics - be they cocaine, heroin, Xanax, etc. - there is no longer a guarantee that is all they receive. Because fentanyl is transdermal, even touching the substance can result in dangerous side effects.
"The biggest thing for us is evidence collection," said Narcotics Division Sergeant Matthew McLane. "The testing, how it's packaged, and how it's dealt with out there is where we're making changes."
Likewise, patrol deputies who pull over drivers for as minimal an offense as a traffic stop could potentially come into contact with airborne powder containing the drug.
"We don't have an opioid tolerance," said Narcotics Division Sergeant Joleen Bowman. "So it takes such a small amount for us to have a chemical, lethal reaction."
Aside from staying informed and raising awareness about the issue, there is little community members can do to help eliminate the epidemic.
If citizens know friends or family members who purchase any type of drug off the streets, they should warn them about the potential dangers of fentanyl inclusion.
Citizens must be even more cautious around any white, powdery substances they encounter and should call law enforcement immediately if they do.
Simply put, the best thing the community can do to help the problem is "just say 'NO' to drugs."
Even from law enforcement's perspective, attacking the fentanyl epidemic is different from taking down its predecessors.
"From a Narcotics (Division) standpoint, if we hear or get results back from things saying they're fentanyl, we try to attack those as hard as we can right away, because we know that this is going to kill people, and it's going to kill them fast if we don't do our best to get the source," Sergeant Camacho said.
Because the drug is primarily shipped from overseas, there are no "fentanyl mills" to target.
K9s are unable to detect the drug, because it is equally lethal to them.
"There is no hub. We have to figure out how and where it's coming in, and that's always going to change." Sergeant Bowman said. "So it's going to be a process to learn how to get one step ahead on this one, but we're definitely trying to get there."
It’s back-to-school time, so get ready for your first lesson of the school year: traffic safety.
The streets on which you transport your children to school or they travel to the bus stop are populated by drivers on their cell phones, putting on their makeup, and eating breakfast as they rush to make it to work or drop off their own kids on time.
In addition to average pedestrians’ usual dangers, like drivers’ blind spots and violations, young children’s slower walking speeds, small stature, minimal traffic experience, still-developing cognitive abilities, and general impulsiveness increase the threat of an accident.
So whether you drive your children to school or you send them to the bus stop, we’ve got some back-to-school traffic safety tips for you and your students.
For your kids
So as you ease back into the school year, make sure that with alarm clocks, homework, and afterschool activities, you add everyday traffic safety to your weekday routine.
Click below to watch our new Back-to-School Traffic Safety PSA.
The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that there are 450,000 people in Florida with Alzheimer’s disease.
In 2016, Florida issued 245 statewide Silver Alerts, called when a senior suffering from irreversible deterioration of intellectual faculties, like Alzheimer’s, goes missing while driving a motor vehicle – and that number doesn’t include local alerts for cases not involving vehicles.
In 2010 (the most recent statistics available), there were 94,909 cases of endangered or disabled missing persons, according to the National Crime Information Center's (NCIC) Active/Expired Missing and Unidentified Analysis Reports.
A lot goes into locating a missing senior citizen. An average case can involve multiple law enforcement and public safety agencies, several outside community resources, hundreds of officers, countless man-hours, and sometimes thousands of dollars – not to mention the extreme emotional distress on family members and caregivers.
To ease this strain on resources and loved ones and protect our most vulnerable citizens, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has partnered with SafetyNET Tracking Systems.
Citizens enrolled in the SafetyNET program are equipped with a personalized tracking wristband. If the citizen goes missing, the caregiver contacts SafetyNET and law enforcement, who can log into the tracking portal, obtain critical information about the citizen and track the radio frequency signal emitted from the wristband to locate him/her.
The SafetyNET program, which can also be used for people with autism or similar special needs who have a tendency to wander, boasts an average rescue time of less than 30 minutes.
The lightweight, waterproof wristbands can be purchased or leased and are available with a variety of strap choices and optional add-ons like alarms, replacement batteries, transmitter testers, etc.
To qualify, the person receiving the band must live in a SafetyNET coverage zone, be diagnosed with a cognitive impairment, not drive a motor vehicle or take public transportation without supervision, and be under constant supervision and monitoring.
The SafetyNET website, www.safetynettracking.com, provides caregivers a host of resources ranging from program fact sheets and testimonials to FAQs and a blog that covers relevant topics and stories in the news.
Although SafetyNET is new to Pinellas County, the program’s concept is not. For years, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has sponsored Project Lifesaver, which offered the same style of wristband-tracking system. Although Project Lifesaver members must re-register with SafetyNET, the agency’s transition will save community money, time, and resources.
For more information and to enroll, visit www.safetynettracking.com or call 877-434-6384.
All citizens who wish to legally operate a motor vehicle on the road must possess a valid driver’s license or learner’s permit. However, the same cannot be said about citizens on the water.
Although Florida law now requires boat-operators born after January 1, 1988, to complete an approved boater education course and receive a “Florida Boating Safety Education ID Card,” there are exceptions.
This means responsible vessel operators should arm themselves with boating knowledge and rules of the water, as well as remain alert for the many other boaters who don’t.
To help prepare citizens and encourage safe, responsible boating, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office sponsors programs like “Operation Kid-Float,” a boating safety education and personal flotation device (PFD) loaner program.
Florida law requires that one PFD, or “lifejacket,” per passenger be readily accessible on the vessel at all times, and children under age 6 must wear PFDs while underway.
Through Operation Kid-Float, boaters can pick up available PCSO-owned PFDs at popular boat ramps throughout the county, including Dunedin City Marina, John Chestnut Park in Palm Harbor, and Fort De Soto Boat Ramp in Tierra Verde. The PCSO Marine Facility in Indian Shores is also available for drop off only.
In addition to the operation’s message board kiosk locations, marine deputies carry loaner PFDs onboard to distribute as necessary during boat safety equipment inspections.
When marine deputies are patrolling Pinellas County’s nearly 588 coastal miles on busy holiday weekends, they also keep an eye out for children who are already sporting their PFDs and reward them with Operation Kid-Float t-shirts.
Although Operation Kid-Float has seen great success since its implementation through Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) grant funds in 2011, PFD possession is only one way to stay safe on the water. Before you boat, adhere to these key safety tips:
For more boating safety tips, visit the FWC, National Boating Safety Council, and the BoatUS Foundation websites.
And, of course, don’t forget the sunscreen!
What's one penny to you?
If you are a Pinellas County resident, it is thousands of capital projects ranging from enhanced flood control and natural resource protection to rebuilt bridges and new emergency facilities – including our Sheriff’s Administration Building in Largo.
The “Penny for Pinellas,” initiated in 1989 and subsequently reapproved in 1997 and 2007, is up for renewal November 7th, when residents will vote on whether to sustain it from 2020 to 2030.
A 1-percent sales tax paid by everyone who spends money in the county, the Penny has supported investments in the areas that matter most to citizens without relying on property taxes. In fact, one-third of revenue has been contributed by the county’s six million annual tourists and seasonal visitors, which provides citizens tangible cost savings.
Since 1990, the Penny has generated more than $3 billion for investments by the county and its 24 cities, which – aside from court and jail facilities – is allocated according to a population-based formula aligning with state statutes.
Previous Penny-funded projects include the widening of Keystone Road, Curlew Creek erosion control, additional hurricane shelter space, the Bayside Bridge, new public safety equipment, and more. The Penny covers the cost of more than 70 percent of local government capital projects such as these and attracts funds from other sources, like state and federal agencies.
As a sales tax, the Penny is not collected on groceries or medications, and it is only collected on the first $5,000 on a purchase.
Before each vote on the Penny’s renewal, county and city officials set priorities based on identified needs in the community, feedback from citizens, results from the annual Citizen Values Survey, and long-term goals outlined in the Pinellas County Strategic Plan.
These priorities are evaluated at least once a year as part of the budget development process to ensure they remain aligned with community needs and available funds.
In March, Pinellas County Government hosted three open house meetings throughout the county to answer citizens’ questions and to hear their feedback on previous and potential Penny projects.
But it’s not too late to educate yourself. Learn about previous Penny-funded projects with an interactive “Accomplishments Map,” see what approving the Penny really means for you, and find out how you can get involved by visiting www.pinellascounty.org/penny.
Every strawberry, zucchini, and tomato that ripens to its fullest potential at First Fruit Hydroponic Farm helps the children of Pinellas PAL do the same.
A 501(c)3 nonprofit “u-pick” farm tucked inconspicuously behind Kellogs Kennel in St. Petersburg, Pinellas PAL First Fruit Hydroponic Farm organically grows a variety of crops for patrons to browse and pluck from the stems themselves, with all profits benefitting the at-risk youth of Pinellas County through the Police Athletic League (PAL).
As many as 200 people – parents, children, church groups, and garden clubs alike – flock to First Fruit every Wednesday and Saturday to pick St. Petersburg’s freshest crops, ranging from cucumbers, squash, green beans, and snap peas, to lesser-known kohlrabi, and most-popular strawberries.
An auto-feed drip system that uses “media” instead of soil, hydroponics is a simple, fruitful method of farming in Florida’s harsh, growth-restrictive climate that is often inhospitable to plant life.
“It’s a simple way to grow a lot of vegetables in a small space, but you have to put work into it,” said First Fruit farmer, Steve Endrodi. “Yes, it will auto-feed, but you still have to weed a little bit, plant, and of course, talk to your vegetables – some things never change.”
Endrodi, who grew up in New Jersey, learned about farming from his father, a produce broker whom he accompanied on several business trips to Maine and New York.
Although he served in the Navy for four years and had a thriving – albeit stressful – career in software tech support, gardening and farming were his constant escape from life’s pressures.
“This is my wheelhouse,” said Endrodi, now a vegetarian who lives off his personal hydroponic farm. “So, this was just a natural way to go.”
PAL leases the about 1/3-acre farm and the 500 hydroponic stackers it houses with $35,000 in grant funds. Since its opening in March 2016, First Fruit has brought in $12,000 in sales.
The profits, however, are secondary.
“No. 1, it’s about the kids – about educating kids,” Endrodi said. “And no. 2, it’s about fresh food for the community, especially Lealman, which is a food desert.”
Throughout the week, First Fruit hosts groups of all types, from adults who are interested in starting their own gardens to children learning about sustainable farming, nutritious food choices, and how to incorporate them into their diets.
Fifteen-year-old PAL student Isaiah said he has only been working at First Fruit for a little more than a week, but he has already learned a lot: about pruning, about planting, and about life.
“What I’ve been doing is basically managing the plants and making sure there are no dead leaves or roots, so they look appealing,” Isaiah said. “But it’s also about being kind to people and always smiling, because first impressions are important.”
Together, Steve and Isaiah strive to create a fun, friendly, and inviting atmosphere with produce aisles as clean and stocked as the grocery store, but instead of off the shelves, visitors pick produce off the plants.
“Parents will come up, worried their son or daughter ate four or five strawberries, but I say that’s part of the fun!” Endrodi said. “If they have a smile on their face, it’s worth it.”
Pinellas PAL First Fruit Hydroponic Farm, 3215 46th Avenue North in St. Petersburg, sells its produce from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays. Visit its Facebook page for a list of available produce and upcoming events, and visit www.pinellaspalfirstfruithydroponics.com to learn more and donate.
Some people are born to be law enforcement officers.
Others are not, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take an interest in public safety, stay abreast of what is happening in their neighborhoods, and strive to make a difference in their community as do deputies at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO).
For people of the latter inclination, the PCSO hosts the Sheriff’s Advisory Board.
The Sheriff’s Advisory Board is a civic organization comprising Pinellas County residents with a general interest in law enforcement who meet monthly to receive updates on agency functions and programs.
“Understanding what goes on in the sheriff’s office is important,” said Stan Sofer, a five-year Advisory Board member. “There’s a lot more than just ‘policing.’”
At meetings, members view presentations from different agency divisions, are updated on recent community happenings, participate in selecting patrol and detention “Deputy of the Quarter” award recipients, and often, speak directly with Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
“We’re ordinary citizens who do not necessarily work in law enforcement, but we get these briefings from law enforcement about what’s happening in the community and what to look out for,” said recently inducted member Berny Jacques. “We can give feedback, ask questions, and we can take that back to our community, wherever it may be.”
Perhaps the Advisory Board’s flagship is the Community Grants Program, which launched in 2014.
The program, which is accepting applications through March 31st, funds local initiatives that serve Pinellas County youth, provide a service, or fulfill a need.
“These are nonprofit organizations that want to help other individuals, whether it’s women seeking protection from bad relationships, or housing, or taking care of children, or youth programs – mostly to benefit individuals who need help,” Sofer said.
In 2015, the Community Grants Program disbursed $8,000 in varying increments to 10 programs that ranged from afterschool care to mental health education to workforce readiness coaching.
Applicants fill out an extensive application, detailing the program or organization’s purpose and goals, how the grant funds would be spent, how many people would benefit from the funds, etc.
At the deadline, Advisory Board grant program executive board members – Sofer and Jacques included – determine the grants’ amounts and recipients.
Upping the ante this year, the Advisory Board plans to distribute $10,000 in up to $1,000 increments, which will be presented to recipients at a ceremony in May.
“It’s important, because it shows that the sheriff’s office has skin in the game when it comes to community development,” Jacques said. “It shows the sheriff’s office is here to advance those who want to advance themselves.”
If you are interested in applying for a Sheriff’s Advisory Board community grant or becoming an Advisory Board member, contact the PCSO Community Programs Section at 727-582-6621 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
People make mistakes. They do stupid things. Sometimes, they make bad choices because they are down on their luck and don’t feel they have another option.
But it is important to realize there is a big difference between people who do bad things to purposefully hurt others and good people who make an error in judgment because they are young, immature, or in a bad situation.
In Pinellas County, time and again, we see people make mistakes, get convicted, serve time or pay large fines, and ultimately, leave with criminal records that haunt them all their lives. This is especially true today due to the ready availability of information from websites, like those that provide mugshots regardless of the offense.
After much discussion and planning, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has decided that simply because people do something wrong doesn’t necessarily mean they should be saddled with undue repercussions the rest of their lives. In October, we initiated an Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion program that aims to prevent small errors from keeping people from getting a job or stable housing.
The program’s most important aspect is its provision of an alternative to making an arrest for law enforcement. Instead, if a person meets certain criteria, he/she can avoid a police record, stay out of the criminal justice system, and modify future behavior, while lessening the number of people filling our jails and prisons.
The criteria that must be met are critically important. The person must take responsibility for his/her actions, agree to make restitution to any applicable victims, and present no risk to others. Additionally, the person cannot have a misdemeanor conviction two years prior or a felony conviction five years prior. A person is not eligible if he/she has gone through the diversion program within the previous three months and can go through it only three times in his/her lifetime.
We looked closely at our misdemeanor laws and narrowed them down to the following offenses eligible for the program:
People who are diverted into this program must report within 48 hours, at which time they are screened, placed in a program for issues like anger management or substance abuse, and required to perform community service. Anyone who fails to comply with the rules is ineligible to participate in the program in the future.
To be clear, this is not a step toward legalizing marijuana for recreational use. The laws remain very firm on that subject. It is, instead, an effort to treat crime equitably while giving deserving people another chance.
Through the Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion program, the county avoids over-utilizing the expensive and time-consuming criminal justice system and processes, while broaching the broader issue: separation of recidivists and criminals from immature youth. There is a difference, and this is an important step toward tackling the discrepancy.
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