Sheriff under gun over radar in St. Lucie County
By Will Greenlee (Contact)
Friday, October 19, 2007
FORT PIERCE — St. Lucie County sheriff's deputies and their boss are at odds over a decision to deactivate at least 30 radar units in patrol vehicles.
The deputies say it's jeopardizing public safety.
Sheriff Ken Mascara says the complaints are "union rhetoric.
The sheriff issued a statement Sept. 11 that the speed measuring devices were being deactivated temporarily after receiving a "high number" of complaints from citizens who'd gotten speeding tickets — something that hadn't happened in prior years. Only deputies in the eight-member traffic unit continue to use them.
Mascara said about 200 people in the past four months complained that radar readings or the judgment of deputies might have been off, a huge increase over the handful received in previous years.
"What do you tell the mother that's taking her kids to school that gets a ticket that says, 'Not only myself but four of my kids in the car swore that I was doing 25 and the deputy said I was doing 48'?" Mascara said. "I would rather us let 100 speeders go than one innocent person have the financial responsibility of paying a huge ticket as well as the insurance question down the road."
But deputies said what they're hearing from the public is quite different, especially given recent high-profile incidents of kids getting hit at or near bus stops.
"We are getting hammered with citizen complaints about speeding," Lt. Stephen Sigmon wrote in an Oct. 9 e-mail.
Nate Ingram, Executive Director of the Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association, which represents sheriff's patrol and detention deputies, said deputies feel Mascara has "effectively handcuffed them" by removing their "most important tool for traffic control."
"They are very upset that this move by the sheriff will hamper their abilities to effectively control traffic and it will put the public at a greater risk of aggressive driving," Ingram said.
But Mascara disagreed, saying the radar unit is "one tool of many that they have for public safety" and brushing off gripes by the rank-and-file.
"This appears to be union rhetoric by a few deputies," he said.
The radar debate comes amidst a souring of the relationship between the sheriff and union over the pay structure of rank-and-file deputies and civilian employees, which they say doesn't accurately compensate them for all hours worked.
Meanwhile, citizen complaints, Sigmon wrote, included the school zones on Indrio Road and Angle Road and the bus stops on Juanita Avenue.
"With the recent incidents involving the three kids hit on their way to school I think this could be a serious issue building," Sigmon wrote. "Traffic doesn't even slow down for marked vehicles now, so our presence in the areas alone is not effective."
But Mascara said 20 speeding tickets were issued in school zones from August to October, while 19 were issued during the same time last year.
A technician comes to the sheriff's office every six months and uses special instruments to analyze the radar units and if problems are found the radar is serviced. Also, deputies each day perform a test required by state law at the beginning and end of their shifts.
The sheriff's office has a variety of radar models ranging from $900 to $3,200. They are re-certified, or re-calibrated, twice a year, most recently on May 29. The next re-certification is scheduled for Nov. 29, and Mascara said there's no guarantee they'll return to service after that.
Along with complaints about the accuracy of the radar units, Mascara indicated he wants to scrutinize the how zone patrol deputies have been using the units to enforce speed laws. They are being directed to make a priority out of handling an increase in property crimes in recent months.
"Let's see how much time the deputies are spending utilizing the radar unit versus doing community policing," Mascara said.
Mascara reported his agency is addressing concerns about the safety of kids at or around bus stops.
The day after Sigmon's e-mail, the sheriff's office and the Port St. Lucie and Fort Pierce police departments announced a countywide school bus stop safety initiative targeting "distracted drivers, careless drivers and speeders." The initiative came after several accidents — one that left a 5-year-old boy dead — at or near school bus stops.
"We've assigned three of our traffic units to partake in this detail," Mascara said. "If we put in three, Port St. Lucie puts in three, and Fort Pierce puts in three, that's nine law enforcement officers."
Ingram said deputies don't understand why the speed measuring devices were deactivated, and that radar is the primary tool they use to enforce speeding laws.
"If these citizens really think that our deputies need a radar unit in their car to serve them," Mascara said, "then I would suggest maybe they need to look for other leadership."