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Deputies face multiple demands while serving, protecting

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image What, precisely, transpired, Sgt. Daniel Alarcon (left) asks Deputy Chris McMurtry (center) after Deputy Amy Morton (right) subdued an individual threatening him with her taser during a South County domestic dispute investigation.

Whatever the motivations, citizen expectations of deputies sometimes stretches credulity...


As a hot and humid darkness descended, the bloody wound still could be seen clearly. The young man prone on the grass had sustained the result of a sharp, slashing, well wielded knife. He was, nonetheless, very much alive, probably very much in pain, likely very much intoxicated.

Evidence of the fight also lay scattered and visible: a nearly empty fifth of booze, patches of dark hair not attached to any head, overturned yard furniture, torn clothing, blood, liberally flowing blood. And the several witnesses standing around a cleared area hundreds of yards from the nearest paved road had things to say.

It was the beginning of a summer weekend in South Hillsborough and the two deputies arriving in separate cruisers already had responded to another domestic dispute since their shift began a couple of hours earlier. Some 30 percent of their calls are in this category. This one would make it a long shift indeed.

The two uniformed patrol deputies, working out of the Hillsborough Sheriff’s District 4 Office, moved in with quick efficiency. Assessing the situation, without conversation between them, they ensured that emergency medical attention was enroute, spoke quietly to the injured man, asked initial pertinent questions of the witnesses, one of them never taking eyes off the injured individual. Operating as if a single unit, the pair of officers made it clear they had the situation safely under control.

Good news and bad news

That’s the good news. Hillsborough County law officers are extremely well trained, strive consistently to meet high professional standards, fully understand theirs is a service demanding sensitivity and are dedicated to all of it.

The bad news is their ranks are stressed. It seems to be a thin green and white line. And the situation begs the question: why? Why can two hours elapse between report of a house burglary and a deputy’s arrival? Why can calls for assistance stack up on a deputy’s car computer? Why can a half day – or night – shift entail a mere two responses to calls for help.

The answers are multiple and complicated. But they can be boiled down to a society’s expanding and sometimes unreasonable expectations, a legal system’s heavy reliance on paper work, the ever present threats of violence in a gun-toting population, a volume of calls demanding prioritizing, even an inclination among officers to specialize rather than remain the law enforcement version of general practitioners. To this can be added, career changes due to salaries considered not commensurate with the daily risks and shaved pension benefit plans as governments try to staunch the flow of red ink.

To pin some of them down, this reporter spent two shifts – night and day- with separate deputies, accompanying them as they rolled on the calls that demanded their attention next, observing the processes they follow, listening closely as they did what they are sworn to do: uphold and enforce laws as written by elected officials, and asking the “why” questions.

It’s a deep, steep org chart

Patrol deputies are the front line in a metropolitan agency such as Hillsborough’s SO; the uniformed force, the public face that citizens encounter most often. Beyond them, less visible, are various units trained for specialized duty – narcotics, gang suppression, street crimes, traffic accident investigation, etc. and etc. Deeper into the org chart are the detectives, often not uniformed, focused on solving homicide, robbery, rape and assault cases. Add to this the corrections personnel, both uniformed and management, who handle the jails.

There are the layers of administration; ranking officers charged with supervisory responsibilities and sometimes going on the street to do double duty; sergeants, lieutenants, captains, majors and on up the line to the elected sheriff himself, all sworn law enforcement officers (LEOs) with arrest authority, frequently holding college degrees, all formally trained, all with skills honed by years of experience on the street, many rising over years through the local ranks. This SO, like most professional law enforcement agencies, is organized on the military model and the profession frequently attracts former military personnel.

The SO roster, of course, further is filled out with non-sworn personnel; staff performing public information duties and providing clerical support and doing a multitude of other jobs that keep the complex system up and operating.

Making a patrol deputy

Most of the arrest action, though, begins with deputies on patrol, in uniform, in marked cruisers equipped with technology that speeds exchange of information. A new deputy today signs on for an annual salary of $38,000 to $41,000, notes Major Ron Hartley, a 38-year veteran now commanding District 4. He, or she, will have been in the system for nearly two years before taking to the street alone. The freshly minted deputy will have been put through an early application process, a painstaking background check, rigorous physical testing and training, weaponry evaluation, the law enforcement academy and, ultimately, lengthy field training beside a street-wise officer.

Before it’s over, he or she will have developed the innate senses for reading people, their body language and between the lines of their statements. He or she may be expected to defuse many volatile situations, take in details with a glance, outrun a lot of suspects, take down an average human being without firepower, unholster, aim and fire a sidearm in smooth rapid motion, activate a tazer with a flick of the finger, lock handcuffs in place while intoning arrestee’s rights and wade into the most gross or pitiful scenes without exhibiting physical or emotional reaction on the spot.

After this investment of time, energy, gut-level determination, the new LEO will work a 12-hour shift, days or nights, weekends, holidays or whenever needed - and that’s the routine duty. He or she will get no more than a 45-minute meal break. No matter the weather, he or she probably will wear the hot but protective Kevlar vest that may save life in the event of gunshot to the chest or trunk of the body.

He or she also will perfect the art of multi-tasking, particularly in the vehicle, watching the all-informative, on-board computer screen and at times keying in responses, catching radioed messages from central dispatch, and possibly even working a cell phone, all while observing the road, traffic and rights-of-way, simultaneously keeping the vehicle moving and under control.

On the job

Deputy Nicki Smith, like her peers, is practiced at it. She fielded oral and computer dispatches, worked radar, cleaned some carbon from her heavy-duty Ford Victoria as we chased speeders and talked about being a female deputy in a profession not long ago dominated by men. As for the guys, she says, her long blond single braid keeping hair out of her face, “it’s all a matter of being professional.” She has absolutely no doubt of their supportive loyalty, should she need them, she adds.

We spent a Friday day shift together, working her zone in a central section of the South County, doing what had to be done, some of it proactive law enforcement, some decidedly less so. In the course of the shift, we would try twice to serve an ex parte order on a defendant unwilling to be found, would use lights and siren to stop two speeders, would investigate a “suspicious person” concern coming from parents in a subdivision, would respond to a frantic “choking baby” call for help, would check out a residential alarm, would mediate a dispute between two young women after a witness reported their physical confrontation on a public sidewalk, would consult with a woman concerned about her hospitalized son’s reportedly stolen truck and twice checked on a hundred or more cars queued up for bargain gas at a service station.

The two speeding stops could be said to possibly have prevented a vehicle injury or death. But the other calls? Not so much. Emergency medical personnel had the baby incident well in hand, the suspicious person was a visiting Asian without a command of English, the two women worked out their differences, the concerned mother was counseled to obtain the legal authority to act in her son’s place, the home alarm was false accidentally set off by the resident, the mob of gas bargainers was orderly, and the ex parte simply could not be served.

Yet, there were South County citizens worried enough to call for the help and support of a deputy sheriff and the agency whose motto is serve and protect responded, trying to do so. Strictly law enforcement? No, not strictly, Hartley acknowledges, but perhaps indicative of a growing attitude of the society in general; an increasing dependency on government.

Call a cop to be a cop

Whatever the motivations, citizen expectations of deputies sometimes stretches credulity, Hartley adds. “I have had people call wanting a deputy to check on their water lines,” he asserts, “and I have told them I don’t have any plumbers in uniform or on staff.” There have been complaints about potholes opening up after a rain and calls for a deputy to help with an unmoving railroad cross arm, neither of which are chapters covered at the police academy. Then, there was the recent case of a teen-ager reportedly abducted through her bedroom window and assaulted. Some 17 hours later, Hartley relates, it was shown no abduction and no assault had occurred. But two deputies and two detectives devoted an entire day to the investigation before the truth was exposed.

Each fraudulent or non- law enforcement request that ties up a deputy takes that officer in whose training thousands of tax dollars have been invested from the tasks he, his agency and the general public have a right to expect of him.

It’s a career, too

Another factor affecting patrol deputy ranks has to do with their individual ambitions and the array of talents they bring to the job. Almost all new officers with the department get their first years of experience in the patrol troops, Hartley says. In this capacity, they deal with the constantly changing human condition, polish their people skills, gain confidence, perfect with practice all they must know and perform. Plus, they are able to exhibit what they do best and spot where in the large, multi-faceted agency they most would prefer to be, if patrol is not the first choice. Retirements, relocations and promotions occur constantly, opening up new opportunities, clearing paths to ultimate goals, be they in a specialized unit or a particular division or in management.

Smith, now an FTO (field training officer) with five years under her belt, sees herself eventually as a detective, preferably dedicated by the department to its intelligence-led policing (ILP) section. ILP holds that 60 percent of the crime is committed by only six percent of the population, indicating that focus on that criminal element is the single most successful means to catching “bad guys,” closing cases and protecting the law-abiding public. Smith supports the premise and points out there is not yet a woman assigned to that area. It only stands to reason, she argues, that the intuitive skills which come naturally to women would be useful there.

Of course, without a replacement settled in, her departure, like any patrol deputy’s re-assignment, would take one more car from the squad, eliminate one more officer on the beat.

The burden of paper

Another issue impacting patrol deputies is the extensive paperwork required of them and the reporting necessary in connection with their actions. It was demonstrated the night of the domestic dispute involving the knife wound.

As with all domestic disturbance cases which inherently pose threats of physical danger to both citizens involved and responding personnel, two deputies and two cars advanced on the scene. Officers Amy Morton and Chris McMurtry might have wrapped up the situation at the location with departure of the injured individual in an ambulance, had the young man, spewing profanities and spraying blood droplets, not chosen to lunge at one of them. Morton fingered her taser. And the young man again was subdued.

But, under department policy, the show of force mandated full review of the entire scenario. Back in the district offices, detail by detail was verbally recounted by the two deputies, examined and recorded by their sergeant, committed to report form substantiating each move made. Should any legal ramifications arise later, the precise report, made immediately before a detail could be lost, accounts fully for their actions.

The exceedingly careful handling, however, also consumed another 90 minutes of the deputies’ shifts, keeping both of them off the road and unable to respond to other calls. In all, Morton and I were able to get to just two domestic violence situations and offer help to one stranded motorist during an entire 12-hour shift. The remainder of the work night was spent compiling reports.

Yet in a society which increasingly embraces litigation, accurate reports are necessary. With no way to predict timing or which situations may result in legal actions, the precautions taken by the department and vitally important to the state’s attorney cannot be ignored or reduced.

Priortizing on night shift

Morton, who says she originally thought she would go into legal practice, also is a FTO and a five-year veteran. She, however, does not plan to leave the patrol ranks, she asserts, but aspires to add a canine partner to her cruiser, working in tandem with a trained police dog to do the ever-changing job. “I love patrol work,” she notes, “and I love the constant variety; no two shifts are the same.”

In that case, Morton will continue to prioritize the constant stream of calls on her cruiser’s computer screen, responding to the most urgent first, leaving the less urgent for a later hour or another deputy. It is by such prioritization that they all work their way through each shift, striving first to protect lives in imminent danger.

On the other hand, every call is answered in one way or another, says Hartley. “No call is ignored.” The priority approach will continue to prevail, he indicates, with crimes-in-progress topping the response list and 911 pleas for help a close second.

Asked about boosting his patrol staffing level to answer more calls, the district commander allows that seven rookies are due into District 4 shortly. But they won’t be ready for street work alone for a while, so the district will get along as it has been. “I’d rather work short than work with problems,” Hartley notes, because personnel turned loose before they’re ready bring on problems that soak up time and manpower to correct.

And the numbers bear him out. The FBI’s recent Uniform Crime Report put the crimes per 1,000 population in the district – the largest in the county both geographically and in population – at 18.2 on a annualized basis, Hartley says. The next best record was made in Hillsborough’s District 3 where the per 1,000 crime rate was pegged at 22.4.

So, his 194 officers — the majority of them patrol deputies and supervisors — are performing at high levels, despite all the handicaps and hurdles, he suggests. “When things go bad, it’s my fault,” he states firmly, “when things go well, it’s because of them.”

Although all of his troops may not be as sanguine as he is about their thin green and white line, their major says philosophically “we were short when I came here and we will be short when I leave.” They will, though, do their jobs, each shift, and to the very best of their abilities.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson      

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