Workplace Safety 

You wouldn’t leave your house unlocked or allow strangers to wander inside. At home, you know all of the exits, the safest places, and hopefully you’ve talked with your family about what to do in an emergency. Yet many spend eight or more hours a day at work, so it is vital to have a safety plan for your place of employment too.

Business Watch helps to establish relationships between businesses and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO). Its primary purpose is to ensure the PCSO has after-hours contacts for business owners if something happens when the business is closed, such as a broken window, burglary, or fire. Business Watch also encourages business owners to take a proactive role in increasing safety. One way they can accomplish this is by contacting the PCSO Crime Prevention and Community Awareness Unit (CPCA). Deputies in that unit can provide security inspections, safety meetings, and presentations, as well as offering emails about crime trends that affect the area.

Businesses are at risk of burglary, theft, forgery/fraud, vandalism, and identity theft, but one of the most troubling trends is the rise in active assailant incidents. According to the FBI, from 2020 to 2021 there was a more than a 50 percent increase in the number of active assailant incidents, and the majority of those occur in places of business. CPCA offers training on how to best prepare for an assailant at work, including forming an Emergency Action Plan (EAP). Sixty-nine percent of active assailant incidents are over in less than five minutes, and no matter how fast the response may be, most have ended before law enforcement arrives. If your business has an EAP in place, it can save lives.

According to the instruction that CPCA offers to businesses, if you hear gunshots or have reason to believe there is an active assailant, the best course of action is to evacuate. Know your exits and plan an evacuation route ahead of time. Leave personal belongings behind and help coworkers escape if possible. If you encounter law enforcement officers as you escape, keep your hands visible, follow their instructions, and quickly give them any information you have about the assailant’s location or appearance.

If evacuation is not possible, the next alternative is to hide. Find a place out of the assailant’s view with cover. Ideally, lock yourself in a room and block the door with whatever is available, turn off the lights, silence cell phones, and stay quiet.

As a last resort to protect your life, be prepared to fight the assailant. Many common items can be used as an improvised weapon to strike or throw at the attacker. Anything that can interfere with the assailant’s aim can also be effective. Discharging a fire extinguisher into an assailant’s face can hamper their sight, and then the extinguisher can be used as a weapon to strike them. If you must fight, it is important to commit and act as aggressively as possible.

Some businesses have unique safety concerns that our CPCA deputies can help you address. They can tailor their advice to specific businesses, walking through the property and advising staff of best practices.

To join Business Watch, fill out the form on our website at https://pcsoweb.com/business-watch. To contact our Crime Prevention and Community Awareness Unit, call 727-582-2222.

 

Posted by Laura Sullivan Thursday, September 1, 2022 4:16:00 PM

Back to School Driving Safety 

Even if you don’t have a child or grandchild in school, please pay attention to back-to-school time. We must do everything we can to keep children safe and you can do your part by following traffic laws about busses, school zones, and pedestrians.

School Bus Safety

You must always stop when you are driving behind a school bus that activates its flashing red lights and displays its STOP signal, no matter how many lanes there are. If you are approaching a stopped school bus from the opposite direction you must stop unless there is a raised median or physical barrier at least five feet wide between lane directions. In that case the vehicle should proceed with caution. Painted lines and pavement markings are not considered barriers.

Failure to stop for a school bus carries a minimum $200 fine. A second offense committed within five years results in that person’s license being suspended for between six months and one year.

If you pass on the side where children are getting on or off the bus the penalties are even more severe: a minimum $400 fine and a one- to two-year suspension for a repeat offense within five years.

School Zones

Pay special attention to designated school zones as well. School zones will be clearly marked with signage and flashing lights alerting drivers. The speed limit in most local school zones is 15 miles per hour. The slow-speed zone is in force half an hour before students are expected to arrive at school in the morning. Remember, this doesn’t just mean the official start of classes, but may be earlier for breakfast service. The school zone may be active for up to half an hour after class begins. In the afternoon, the school zone is active until 30 minutes after students are released. With elementary, middle, and high schools all starting and ending at different times, you may encounter several different school zones in your daily travels. Be alert for increased traffic and many more buses and pedestrians now that school is back in session. The fine for speeding in a school zone is double that of speeding in most other areas.

Cell Phones

It is illegal to use a cell phone in a handheld manner while driving in a school zone. This includes texting and making phone calls. If you must use a device in a school zone, it needs to be completely hands-free. Your full attention needs to be on the road and on pedestrians.

Crossing Guards

Crossing guards are stationed at high-frequency intersections where children walk or bike to school. Crossing guards enter the crosswalk when it is safe to do so and ensure that children only cross the road when all traffic has stopped. Be alert for the crossing guard’s sign and whistle, and follow their directions.

If you would like a rewarding part-time job helping to keep children safe, consider becoming a school crossing guard. You will receive uniforms, equipment, and training, and make $22 an hour. Contact Human Resources at 727-582-6208 for more information.

Posted by Laura Sullivan Thursday, August 11, 2022 9:50:00 AM

Boating Safety: Preventing Crashes, Saving Lives 

Few areas are as welcoming to boaters as Pinellas County. Our home is a boater’s paradise with year-round warm weather and miles of coastline. But there are more chances of boating accidents with so many vessels on the water. In 2020 the US Coast Guard reported 5,265 recreational boating crashes that caused 767 fatalities, 3,191 injuries, and resulted in $62.5-million in property damage. Here in Pinellas County we had 56 boating accidents in 2020. The leading factors that contributed to crashes, both nationally and locally, include operator inattention/improper lookout, inexperience/lack of training, and speed.

Florida doesn’t require any kind of boating license, but to legally operate a vessel of ten horsepower or more, anyone born after January 1, 1988 has to take an approved boating safety education course. Vessel operators must carry proof of that certification or they can be ticketed.

A deputy needs to have witnessed a violation in order to stop a motor vehicle, but a Marine and Environmental Lands Unit deputy can stop any vessel simply for a safety check. Boats are required to have several kinds of safety equipment, including a personal floatation device (PFD) for each passenger, a throwable ring or cushion, an audible signaling device such as a whistle or horn, and a Coast Guard-approved marine fire extinguisher. Each piece of missing equipment could result in a citation, but many deputies prefer to use such stops for educational purposes and only issue warnings.

There must be PFD in the vessel for every adult and child when they are on the water, and every child under six on a vessel less than 26 feet must wear a properly fitting US Coast Guard approved PFD at all times.

A PFD can be hot and bulky, but the right PFD can save your life – if you’re wearing it. Some PFDs are designed to ensure that a person floats face-up even if they are unconscious, which can be vital if you’re boating alone. Wearing a PFD is also the safest choice in rough seas or high wind, or if a person isn’t a good swimmer.

Deputies can also stop paddleboarders and kayakers for safety inspections or violations. Human powered vessels need PFDs and an audible signaling device to be in compliance.

Awareness is a vital part of boating safety. Watch for signs indicating no-wake or minimum-wake zones. These are the marine equivalent of speed limits and can be in place to help prevent collisions, to reduce harm to protected species or ecosystems, or to protect property. The vessel operator should always be looking out for hazards including boats, swimmers, divers, underwater obstructions, or structures.

You should also be alert to the weather. Check out the forecast including storm potential, wind speeds, and tides, before you get underway. Be aware that in our area storms can form quickly and conditions can swiftly deteriorate.

The PCSO Marine and Environmental Lands Unit is here to help you stay safe on the water.

Posted by Laura Sullivan Wednesday, July 6, 2022 9:43:00 AM

Hurricane Season 2022: Prepare Now to Stay Safe 

The latest forecast for the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season calls for above average tropical activity. Colorado State University predicts 19 named storms, 9 hurricanes, and 4 major hurricanes. Worse, they indicate a 47 percent chance that a major hurricane (Category 3 or higher) will hit the Florida peninsula this year. Improve your odds of weathering a storm by preparing now.

Pinellas County Emergency Management (www.pinellascounty.org/emergency) is your best local resource for hurricane preparedness. They publish an annual Hurricane Preparedness Guide that has updated evacuation zones as well as tips for what to do before, during, and after a hurricane strikes.

First, know your evacuation level. If you are in ANY of the evacuation zones, have a plan for where to go whether it’s a shelter, a friend or relative’s house in a non-evacuation zone, or out of the area of impact entirely. When the order to evacuate comes, do not delay.

Follow the guidelines in the Hurricane Preparedness Guide to secure your home, vehicles, or business. If you’re staying in your home, make sure you have two weeks of supplies including food, water, sanitary supplies, medicines, a first aid kid, and batteries. Sunscreen, insect repellent, ropes, tarps, garbage bags, and tools can also be useful – particularly in the aftermath of the storm. Don’t rely on candles, as they can cause house fires and take proper precautions while using generators.

Remember that during the most intense periods of a hurricane, law enforcement, fire personnel, and EMS will not be able to respond to calls for service because it is simply too dangerous for emergency vehicles to be on the roads. This makes it all the more important that you plan for the safety of you and your family. Don’t take unnecessary risks – many dangers exist both during and after a hurricane.

911 will continue to take calls throughout a storm, and operators can guide citizens through many emergencies. After conditions improve, emergency personnel can be dispatched.

All of Pinellas County’s barrier islands are mandatory evacuation zones when a hurricane strikes. Abandoned houses and businesses could be easy prey for looters and burglars. To prevent that, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has implemented Emergency Access Permits.

During and immediately after the storm, the bridges to the barrier islands will be closed until the area is safe. When the storm has passed and the evacuation order is lifted, only residents and business owners who have been issued a re-entry pass will be allowed to return to the islands. Deputies stationed at the nine re-entry points will scan the barcode and let the resident pass. Anyone without an access pass will be refused entry.

Citizens should apply for their permits now, and not wait until a storm is approaching. A maximum of two permits may be issued for each residential address. Owners of boat slips are also eligible for a permit. Residents may apply online at www.pcsoweb.com/emergency-access-permit or register in person with their local city government. Commercial property owners must apply in person.

With planning, preparation, and a cooperative partnership among citizens, Emergency Management, and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, we can keep Pinellas safe this hurricane season.

Posted by Verliz Williams Wednesday, June 1, 2022 8:00:00 AM

The Mental Health Unit Helps Citizens in Crisis 

Having a mental illness is not a crime. Unfortunately, many people with mental illnesses wind up in jail because they may not always be able to control their actions or perceive reality. Or, they may be committed under the Baker Act, a law which allows a person to be involuntarily committed to a mental health facility if they present a danger to themselves or others. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) Mental Health Unit (MHU) was created to reduce both Baker Acts and contact with law enforcement officers among the mentally ill.

The MHU pairs a specially trained deputy with a civilian Crisis Response Specialist to meet with citizens in mental health crisis that may warrant intervention. If a patrol deputy realizes that a citizen has a mental health issue and may be in need of services, they can contact the MHU. Or a team from the MHU may respond directly to a call about a person in crisis.

Once they make contact, the deputy will make sure the scene is secure. Then the Crisis Response Specialist will engage the subject, evaluating their mental state and determining their willingness to receive help. All of the services are voluntary.

MHU members will tell them about available services, especially the Pinellas Integrated Care (PIC). PIC can connect citizens to counseling, medication, substance abuse treatment, job services, housing, and insurance options. Navigating the world of mental health services can be difficult, for both patients and their families. The MHU tries to make a scary, chaotic situation as easy to manage as possible, removing the barriers to positive mental health management.

After the initial contact, PIC will usually follow up in three days. The MHU then meets with the PIC team once a week to discuss the clients they serve.

The MHU was expanded last year. Today there are six deputies and two Clearwater Police officers who pair with eight civilian Crisis Response Specialists. The program has been so successful that the MHU recently won the PCSO Unit Award for its excellent work.

It can be challenging, and sometimes disappointing. Clients who are enthusiastic in the beginning may stop using the services designed to help them. Many also have substance abuse issues that complicate their mental health care. But the many success stories make it worthwhile. Thanks to the MHU, more citizens with mental health issues are staying out of jail and receiving the services they need.

For more information about mental health education and support, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness at www.nami.org. If you know a child or young adult experiencing a mental health crisis, you can contact the Pinellas Mobile Crisis Response Team at 727-362-4424. For an emergency situation, as always, call 911.

Posted by Laura Sullivan Friday, May 20, 2022 10:58:00 AM

The SafetyNet Tracking System 

According to the National Crime Information Center missing persons database, 521,705 people were reported missing in the US in 2021. Of those, 29,393 were considered to be in the “disabled” category. This includes people of all ages who have a mental or physical disability which puts them at risk to themselves or others.

Our children and our elderly are among the most precious – and the most vulnerable – members of the community. Unfortunately, certain conditions can put some citizens at a higher risk of going missing. Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly and developmental disorders such as autism in younger people can cause them to wander.

For the past ten years we’ve been using radio frequency technology to help locate missing people. Now the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) has a new tool to help bring your loved ones safely home even more quickly. Thanks to a new three-year federal grant, we’ve been able to expand our partnership with SafetyNet Tracking Systems to help reunite vulnerable missing people with their families and caregivers. This partnership with SafetyNet could dramatically reduce the recovery time for missing people. Simply put, this will save lives.

These new devices resemble a smart watch, and are primarily worn on the wrist. One of the features is the ability to set up a geofence. A caregiver determines what area they would consider a safe zone – a perimeter around the home, school, or other safe place. The device is enabled with GPS tracking that will alert an administrator if their loved one wanders away from the safe zone. This allows your loved one to be located quickly.

The SafetyNet Tracking System will be available to residents of Pinellas County who are in need. Soon, citizens will be able to apply via the PCSO website, www.pcsoweb.com. There is no cost to the user or their caregivers.

Health and developmental conditions can complicate rescue. A dementia patient may not respond to a call if they forget their own name. Autistic children can have a diminished fear response, and might go places other people would avoid, such as busy highways, dense woods, or muddy swamps. Many autistic children seem drawn to water, and drowning is heartbreakingly frequent among missing autistic children. Autistic children will sometimes ignore rescuers, and could even hide to avoid them.

These risks aren’t confined to the old or young. Dementia has many causes, and can happen at any age. Autistic adults are also vulnerable. SafetyNet is for any citizen who is at risk of wandering because of dementia, autism, or other cognitive or mental disorders.

Is there a person in your life who is vulnerable to wandering into danger? Keep an eye on the PCSO website for information on how to apply for a SafetyNet tracker.

Posted by Laura Sullivan Thursday, April 7, 2022 9:15:00 AM

IRS Tax Safety Tips 

With tax season upon, the stress of filing taxes can cloud judgement and leave taxpayers vulnerable to becoming victims of fraud. To avoid becoming a victim of a tax scam, you have to know how the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) would typically initiate contact with you.

Under most circumstances, the IRS will contact you via standard mail. In special circumstances, they may have someone call or visit your home or business. Some of the special circumstances, include but are not limited to: an overdue tax bill, an open criminal investigation, or to secure a delinquent tax return. Before the IRS makes a phone call or an in-person visit, you would have received multiple notices in the mail.

Criminals that are impersonating the IRS can be aggressive and sophisticated. From using fake names to counterfeit IRS identification badge numbers, the method in which scammers try to coerce payments is not a method used by actual IRS employees. Scammers will always try to instill a sense of fear and urgency in order to get what they want. Before you give in, take a moment to evaluate the legitimacy of what they’re asking for and the method of payment they are requesting.

Unlike scammers, the IRS will never demand a specific form of payment, like a prepaid debit card, gift card, or wire transfer. They will also never require immediate payment or threaten to bring local police, immigration officers, or other law enforcement agencies to arrest you for not paying. In fact, the IRS cannot revoke a license or immigration status. Threatening you with law enforcement action is just one of the many ways scammers try to instill fear.

The IRS assigns overdue tax debts to private debt collection agencies. Before a debt collection agency calls, the IRS would have sent you, the taxpayer, a letter letting you know that the debt has been turned over to one of the private agencies. The IRS only uses the following private collection agencies (PCAs): CBE Group, Coast Professional, and ConServe. Only one of the aformentioned agencies will contact you about the tax debt that was turned over, not all of them at once. If they contact you, remember that PCA representatives will never ask for a prepaid gift card, they will never take law enforcement action, and most importantly, they will only ask for payments to go to the U.S. Treasury

As you prepare to file your taxes this year, remember, the IRS will never contact you via email, text messages, social media, or demand immediate payments. If you’re unsure if you owe money to the U.S. Treasury, you can check your tax account by visiting: http://www.irs.gov/payments/view-your-tax-account.

If you believe that you or someone you know has been a victim of a scam, contact the PCSO at 727-582-6200.

Posted by Laura Sullivan Tuesday, March 15, 2022 9:13:00 AM

Gift Card Scams 

Your phone rings. It’s an unfamiliar number, but you answer anyway. The caller advises you of an urgent situation. In order to prevent “something bad” from happening, they demand payment immediately – in the form of one or several gift cards. They tell you which gift card to buy and may even direct you to a specific store to purchase it. The caller insists on staying on the phone with you during the transaction. Once you purchase the card, they request the gift card number and PIN to expedite the process.

Does this scenario sound familiar? It’s a textbook gift card scam.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) and our law enforcement partners have been inundated with gift card scam cases and need your help to prevent your friends, family, and neighbors from becoming a victim.

Aside from the method of payment, the stories behind gift card scams are not dissimilar to other common scams. The person on the other end of the phone pretends to be someone they’re not. They may identify themselves as a representative from the Internal Revenue Service, support technician from a computer company, customer service representative from your utility company, or even a friend or family member in trouble.

Gift cards are so popular with scammers because unlike other payment methods, there are far fewer protections for buyers and they are readily available in most stores. Like cash, once they have the gift card information in hand – the money is gone.

Remember the following tips to avoid becoming a victim:

  • No government agency or legitimate business will contact you and require payment with gift cards.
  • Gift cards are for gifts. When purchasing a gift card, only buy them from reputable stores and make sure it has not been tampered with.
  • Don’t answer phone calls from numbers that you don’t recognize. If it’s legitimate and it’s important they will leave a message.
  • If you’re contacted by someone claiming to be a family member or friend in trouble, try to contact them by traditional means to verify.

If you believe that you or someone you know has been a victim of a scam, contact the PCSO at 727-582-6200.

Posted by Verliz Williams Tuesday, February 1, 2022 12:39:00 PM

Shopping Safety 

December is upon us and Christmas will be here before we know it.  If you’ve made your list, but haven’t checked it twice, time is running out to get your shopping done.  The number of people shopping online was already increasing exponentially each year before the pandemic, but now it has become even more commonplace.

Most online retailers have more products to choose from and having access to their inventory that can be shipped directly to you or your loved ones helps alleviate an already stressful time. However, there are some online retailers that have no products to offer because their intent is to steal your money – and that can cause a great deal of stress.  The rise of online shopping has made it easier than ever for scammers to steal your money, but if you follow these simple tips, online shopping can be the safest and most convenient way to shop:  

Verify you’re visiting a legitimate website: Reputable companies offer several layers of protection on their website which creates a safe shopping experience. You can verify the legitimacy of a site by ensuring that the company’s name is correctly spelled in the website address and looking for a lock icon in the web address bar. Use caution when clicking on links to websites sent to you via e-mail.

Be careful with your personal information: Scammers may try to contact you and ask for your personal information. They may say that they are trying to “verify” an account or looking to “correct an order,” but don’t buy it.

Use a single payment method: Watching your bank statements for fraudulent activity can be a difficult task, especially with the large amount of purchases during the holidays. Using a single source of payment, preferably one credit card for all purchases, can simplify that process and help safeguard your personal finances.

Criminals are always looking for an easy target and by taking some precautions you can ensure that you aren’t one of them. Remember if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

On behalf of all 2,800 members of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, I wish you a safe and happy holiday season.

Posted by Verliz Williams Monday, January 3, 2022 1:29:00 PM

Crime Stoppers: Solving Crime, One Tip At A Time 

When DNA evidence is contaminated or additional evidence is limited, how do detectives solve the case? It was a question that Detective Greg MacAleese from the Albuquerque Police Department had in the summer of 1976 when he was assigned the case of Michael Carmen, a local college student who was robbed and shot to death while working at a gas station.

Months after the murder of Carmen, MacAleese and his colleagues still had no leads. With limited evidence, MacAleese grew frustrated. He knew that someone had information that would lead to an arrest, but he needed to figure out how he could get that information.

In the hopes that it would establish a lead, MacAleese produced a video re-enactment of the homicide and had the clip air on a local television station. In the re-enactment, he also guaranteed anonymity and a cash reward to anyone who could provide information leading to an arrest. Following the airing of the video, MacAleese received a tip that led to the arrest of two suspects within 72 hours. Both suspects were charged with the murder of Michael Carmen and a string of armed robberies.

Due to MacAleese’s determination to solve Carmen’s murder and his innovative thinking, Crime Stoppers was established on September 8th, 1976. The program was built on the partnership between local law enforcement agencies, the public, and the media, to help solve cases. Crime Stoppers also gave members of the public an opportunity to submit tips anonymously and be rewarded if their tip led to an arrest.

Today, Crime Stoppers is an international program with coordinators all over the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, Australia, and the South/Western Pacific. Crime Stoppers of Pinellas County was formed in January of 2001. Currently, Jamie Smith, serves as the Crime Stoppers Coordinator for Pinellas County and she is assigned within the Public Relations Bureau of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

“The fact that the community can submit tips, remain anonymous, and be rewarded if the tip leads to an arrest is pretty significant in helping law enforcement with their investigations,” Smith said.

More than 40 years later, Crime Stoppers continues to rely on the cooperation of local law enforcement agencies, the community, and the media to provide information to help solve cases. Last year, about 60 tips helped lead to an arrest throughout the county. Although Smith works out of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, she vets tips for local law enforcement agencies countywide.

Every day, in addition to reviewing tips, Smith also works on determining if submitted tips led to an arrest or were determined to be unfounded. Tips that lead to an arrest are eligible for a monetary reward. The amount is calculated by a software program based on several variables including the type of crime, number of charges, and the suspect’s overall risk to the community. Before the reward is given to the tipster, however, it is approved by the Crime Stoppers of Pinellas County Board of Directors, which is made up of members of the community including Smith.

Once approved, the tipster is able to claim their reward at a local bank by providing their unique tip number and password given to them at the initial submission of the tip.

While Smith reviews hundreds of tips each year, one she received in February of last year stands out. The St. Petersburg Police Department had published a news release asking for the community’s help in identifying a suspect in a double homicide. Soon after, Crime Stoppers received a tip that detailed the clothes that the suspect had on. After forwarding the tip to St. Petersburg detectives, they managed to find the suspect’s clothes in a dumpster just 30 minutes before Waste Management was scheduled to empty the dumpster. Without the tip and a quick response from detectives, one of the most compelling pieces of evidence would have been destroyed and the case may have gone cold.

“Knowing that a bad guy is taken off the street based on an anonymous tip is the most rewarding part of my job,” Smith said. “Another, is being able to be a small piece of the puzzle in one of the most important parts of an investigation, which is gathering tips and potential leads.” To date, tips through Crime Stoppers of Pinellas County have led to over 1,100 arrests and more than $300,000 in rewards.

If you have information pertaining to a crime, you can contact Crime Stoppers at 1-800-873-TIPS or submit a tip online by visiting http://www.crimestoppersofpinellas.org/.

If you don’t have a tip to submit, but are interested in being a part of the Board of Directors you can call Crime Stoppers of Pinellas County at 727-582-5806. 

Posted by Verliz Williams Monday, January 3, 2022 1:29:00 PM
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