MILTON — Before the Santa Rosa County Board of County Commissioners approved a 10 percent raise for the Santa Rosa Sheriff's Office deputies, Sheriff Bob Johnson said it was impossible to fill position vacancies because no one was applying.
“When you have six or seven openings that you can’t fill, you can ask for 20 more deputies but they will just remain unfilled,” Johnson said. “What’s the point?”
“... The county commissioners giving 10 percent sends a message that this is a great place to live and work.”
Current staffers also appreciate the board’s decision.
“I’ve heard from several deputies that work the road and different jobs. They feel appreciated,” Johnson said.
“I hear people comment over and over and Sheriff Johnson made the point at a lunch meeting,” Santa Rosa County Chamber of Commerce Director Donna Tucker said.
“When talking to counterparts in neighboring counties, they talk about how they ... don’t feel love from the public like officers here in Santa Rosa County. The people here are so supportive of law enforcement.”
Safety also has been a consideration for people relocating to Santa Rosa County.
“(The crime rate) is often a factor, especially for people ... with children,” real estate agent Cindy Cotton said. “Safety is a major issue.”
And Johnson’s increased staff will face a county with more crime.
The dispatch calls for service in 2015 were 135,039, according to the sheriff's office records division. In 2016 they were 148,527. Johnson estimates 165,000 to 170,000 calls this year.
“What gets me the most is narcotics,” Johnson said. “Narcotics arrests are up 32 percent (2015 to 2016). We’re on tap this year to break that record.
“I’ve never seen crime like it is now and I’ve been on the job 35 years.”
Some of it can be prevented.
Three recent arrests clear 28 burglary cases in one Navarre neighborhood, according to Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Rich Aloy. However, he said, the victims could have taken one step to prevent the crimes: lock their car doors.
The Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Office YouTube account has multiple videos depicting the problem.
One video, titled, “Don’t be a target to these criminals in Navarre,” states that since the beginning of 2017, in Navarre, there have been 41 vehicle burglaries, 16 stolen vehicles and seven stolen guns with one thing in common: the victims’ car doors being unlocked.
The same video shows surveillance footage in which a suspect passes up a white truck upon finding the door locked.
“It’s a consistent problem,” Aloy said, “the No. 1 crime in Santa Rosa County.”
The impacts are financial to the county, time for the sheriff’s office, and in some cases immeasurable to the victims.
One burglar may steal from multiple cars on a street, but each theft affects a separate victim, requiring his or her own investigation; that means a separate report, interview, crime scene investigation, fingerprinting and evidence submission, Aloy said.
“It’s costing the county all of the manpower required to process the vehicles at the crime scene,” he said.
Meanwhile, deputies still have other calls to answer.
“We still have a shift to maintain. We still have to respond to other people’s calls; in-progress crimes. There are so many other things we could be doing. Myself, I’ve said, ‘Listen, ma’am, I’ll be back later. I have a bank alarm going off.’ It’s a lot of work for not locking your car.”
The department has been able to start hiring more deputies, but even with a full staff, there are some calls that (with a little action beforehand) those deputies wouldn't have to take, so they could focus on violent and more serious crimes.
“The victim has a choice. They’ve made themselves a target,” Aloy said.