With election day less than three weeks away, the two candidates for Pinellas County Sheriff squared off virtually at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club’s candidate forum Wednesday.
The candidates are:
- Bob Gualtieri, the Republican incumbent who has served as Sheriff since 2011 when he was appointed to the position by Governor Rick Scott. He has since served as chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission and the president of the Florida Sheriff’s Association.
- Eliseo Santana, a Democrat who worked for more than 30 years as a communications maintenance supervisor at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office before stepping down in 2012. Since that time, he’s served as a community activist, heading up the local chapters of both LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) and Puerto Rico Connect.
During the hourlong forum moderated by Catalyst publisher Joe Hamilton, the two candidates didn’t agree on much. While voices were never raised, there were a number of contentious exchanges between the men. Gualtieri emphasized his accomplishments during his tenure as sheriff and repeatedly criticized Santana’s lack of experience, saying he has “never worn a uniform and never responded to a call.” Santana, on the other hand, positioned himself as an alternative to the status quo and said that he would represent a change that would bring more community members and their input to the table.
When asked about how the sheriff’s office of the future will look different from the one of the past, both candidates talked about the importance of diversity. Gualtieri touted the continued importance of recruiting minorities and noted that 12.2 percent of Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies are Black, a number which reflects the makeup of the county.
“We are making strides and making efforts to ensure we’re as diverse as we possibly can be,” he said.
Santana said it’s not simply a question of recruiting minorities – it’s about the advancement opportunities available to them, which he believes are lacking. Of the 32 members of senior staff at the command level, he said that only two are people of color, one of whom was recently promoted in the last month.
“The good ol’ boy network has been used in order to put people in positions of authority,” he said. “When we have only two people of color at the highest level, that speaks for itself. I don’t even have to go further than that.”
On the topic of having social workers respond to non-violent calls, something that’s being implemented by the St. Petersburg Police Department, Santana said he’s supportive of the idea and believes that by addressing the core issues for people in crisis, there can be better outcomes.
“Arresting someone and taking them to jail doesn’t do anything to resolve the problem, and actually aggravates it,” he said. “I applaud the efforts of the City of St. Pete, and I wish our sheriff would have taken the lead a long time ago to be able to keep our community safer.”
Gualtieri bristled at Santana’s comment, noting that the sheriff’s office has had a mental health unit since 2016 and said that he’s advocated for more legislature support for mental health issues for years. He also pointed out that the sheriff’s office has operated the homeless diversion program Safe Harbor for 10 years in an effort to keep people out of the mental health and the jail systems. He also spoke of plans to expand a program where mental health counselors partner with deputies to bring case management to people in crisis when responding to calls.
“This is not new. This something we’ve been doing for years,” he said.
As for how the sheriff’s office can restore public confidence in regard to its treatment of minorities in its custody, Gualtieri talked of having forged strong community relationships, though he acknowledged they could “always be better.” He said communication is one of the areas that has been lacking and that when he talks to community groups, many residents aren’t aware of what the sheriff’s office is already doing.
For example, he explained that officers go through de-escalation and implicit bias training, and that chokeholds and no-knock warrants have been banned. He also said that deputies will begin using body cameras Oct. 26.
“This is what the community wants and this is what we’re going to do,” said Gualtieri, who was initially resistant to body cameras because he was concerned the technology wasn’t up to par. “That transparency will hopefully lead to increased confidence from the community.”
Santana said that bringing community leaders into play will be key to regaining confidence, something he said has been insufficient and has ended up pitting the community against the sheriff’s office. He called for the creation of a citizen’s review board that will have input on how incidents are handled, and expressed doubts in Gualtieri’s approach to policing.
“The mind that got us into this situation is not going to be the one that’s going to change what the approach for the future is or make the community safer,” he said.
Regarding the culture of the sheriff’s office, Santana said the majority of deputies are “good people acting in good faith.” However, he’s concerned that there are a few deputies who aren’t doing the right thing and feels that the internal culture promotes their protection.
“I’m going to empower the good officers to take care of and deal with those individuals who aren’t doing the right thing,” he said. “I’ll be backing up our deputies who are doing the right things, and giving them the tools they need and promoting the right people into place.”
Gualtieri, who said the culture of the sheriff’s office is based on accountability and training, didn’t take kindly to Santana’s characterizations and suggested he was “watching too much TV” and “throwing out assertions” that weren’t factual.
“Frankly, what Mr. Santana said was pretty offensive to the men and women of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office,” he said. “He hasn’t been around here in eight years, and he has the audacity to sit there and say the culture is one where the people who are doing things wrong are protected by others. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
To watch the forum, click here.