It only takes a spark to ignite a flame.
Each year, law enforcement officers throughout Pinellas County hope to be that spark, lighting the flame atop the ceremonial torch that they use to shine a light of awareness on a community often cast in the shadows.
For more than 25 years, Pinellas County has hosted the Law Enforcement Torch Run to raise awareness for the Special Olympics and to bring attention to the many sports programs available for the intellectually disabled.
The Torch Run was created in 1982 in Wichita, Kansas, to keep law enforcement active in the community and support Special Olympics Kansas. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) first endorsed the Torch Run in 1983. Today, it is the largest public awareness and fundraising group for the Special Olympics, with more than 97,000 law enforcement members nationwide participating annually.
Throughout March, April, and May, Florida law enforcement agencies will host 70 Torch Run events, including runs in Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando, Manatee, and of course, Pinellas counties.
Before the sun rises Wednesday, April 25th, sworn personnel, staff, and community supporters accompanied by Special Olympics athletes will gather at the St. Petersburg Police Department to light the torch, which they will pass from agency to agency in six relay race legs spanning Pinellas County.
This year’s participating agencies include the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the Florida Highway Patrol, and police departments from Belleair, Clearwater, Kenneth City, Largo, Pinellas Park, and Tarpon Springs.
Participants run and bike a combined total of more than 20 miles, stopping at various law enforcement buildings, public parks, and special needs schools, where they are greeted by booming music, rejuvenating snacks, and crowds of supporters holding motivational signs and banners.
In addition to the community awareness and sense of law enforcement unity and support, the Torch Run raises money through merchandise sales. Last year, the Pinellas County event raised almost $10,000, which benefited Pinellas County Special Olympics athletes participating in the annual state summer games.
This year, you can purchase sizes small-3XL performance shirts for $20, cotton t-shirts for $15, and one-size-fits-all baseball caps for $10.
Before the final stop at Paul B. Stephens Exceptional Student Education Center, the very people for whom participants are racing will meet them down the road to join them in the last few steps before they cross the finish line, hand in hand.
For more information or to purchase Torch Run apparel, contact the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Public Relations Bureau at 727-582-6221.
2. Whether you're at the beach, on the boat, or in the backyard, your Spring Break plans likely include outdoor activity, so don't forget the sunscreen! The Centers for Disease Control recommends using broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15, even if it's slightly cloudy. Make sure to apply it 15-30 minutes before you head outdoors to allow your skin sufficient time to absorb it.
3. If you’re hitting the road, secure your home. Lock your doors and windows, and put valuables in a safe place. Tell a friend or neighbor that you will be out of town, and ask him/her to pick up your mail and newspapers, because a packed mailbox or a stack of newspapers at your front door signals would-be burglars that you are not there. If you would like someone to check on your home while you are away, contact your local law enforcement agency. If you live in the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office’s jurisdiction, call us at 727-582-6200, and a deputy or Volunteer Patrol member will be glad to conduct a vacation home check.
4. Whether you are taking a long trip out of town or driving the pedestrian-packed beach streets, be extra vigilant behind the wheel. Drive defensively. Make sure everyone is properly buckled up and using the appropriate child safety restraints. Allot extra time to get where you’re going to prevent rushing and making careless, dangerous mistakes. Conversely, if you are the pedestrian, be on the lookout for distracted drivers, use crosswalks, and always be aware of your surroundings.
5. If you are at least 21 years old and choose to drink alcohol, do so responsibly. Be mindful of area laws and ordinances related to the possession of open containers in public, and never accept a drink from a stranger. Know your limits, and remember that time in the sun maximizes the effects of alcohol. Of course, NEVER drink and drive. Instead, designate a sober friend or use taxi services and ride-share apps.
This month, we celebrate Valentine's Day, and love is in the air.
Most would agree that love is a beautiful gift, but it isn't always easy.
Love can be difficult.
Love can be stressful.
Love can be heartbreaking.
But love is NEVER destructive.
In 2016, Florida law enforcement agencies received 105,668 domestic violence reports, according to the Florida Coalition against Domestic Violence. State of Florida data shows that there were 6,829 reported domestic violence offenses in Pinellas County alone, averaging 18.7 domestic violence offenses a day.
Sadly, these reports likely reflect only a fraction of the number of domestic violence instances that actually took place. Many domestic violence victims do not report their abusers due to shame, fear, or abuser interference.
In 2016, about 19% of reported domestic violence offenses in Florida were between spouses, and another 29% were between co-habitants, according to a Florida Statistical Analysis Center's uniform crime report.
These previously formed, seemingly positive relationships between victims and abusers make it easy for victims to justify the abuse as an accident or a one-time occurrence and to accept pledges that "it will never happen again" and promises of love.
But remember: Love is NEVER destructive.
This is not to say that intimate relationships - be they spousal, parental, sibling, child, etc. - will not experience their ups and downs. However, it is important to know the difference between healthy occasional discord and the physical and emotional volatility that characterize abuse.
Domestic violence is defined as a pattern of abusive behaviors, such as intimidation, physical violence, emotional degradation, or economic manipulation, to establish power and control over an intimate partner. Its effects on victims extend beyond the obvious physical bruising and emotional scarring.
In the United States alone, intimate partner violence costs exceed $8.3 billion per year, including $5.8 billion in direct health care expenses and $2.5 billion in lost productivity, according to Forbes. This likely relates to that fact that among homeless mothers with children, more than 80% had previously experienced domestic violence, and between 22-57% of all homeless women reported that domestic violence was a leading cause of their homelessness, according to a Family and Youth Services Bureau report. Medically, women who have been physically abused are 80% more likely to experience a stroke and 70% more likely to have heart disease, according to a Centers for Disease Control report.
While the list of domestic violence's negative effects goes on, any abusive relationship you know about does not need to.
Pinellas County offers various free and confidential services for domestic violence victims, including victim advocate services, like those provided by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, a statewide domestic violence hotline (800-500-1119), and two local domestic violence shelters: Community Action Stops Abuse (CASA) and The Haven of RCS.
CASA services southern Pinellas County, offering a 133-bed emergency shelter, support groups, and courtroom advocacy as well as operating the area's 24-hour hotline: 727-895-4912.
The Haven provides similar services for northern Pinellas County, including its own 24-hour hotline: 727-442-4128.
CASA and The Haven are both 501(C)3 charitable organizations that are always in need of donations and volunteers. Visit their websites for more information on how you can help.
As always, if you or someone you know is ever in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.
Spend this Valentine's Day celebrating the love in your life, eradicating unhealthy relationships, and learning to recognize the difference between the two.
Through extra-curricular activities, youth build stronger relationships not only with their peers but also with adults who supervise them and act as positive role models aside from their parents.
Just as students learn how to read from their teachers at school, how to make friends from their peers on the playground, and how to swing a bat from their coaches on the field, they can learn how to be involved, upstanding young citizens from their local law enforcement officers.
If they’ve never interacted with a law enforcement officer, the deputy walking around in a pressed green uniform with a badge on his chest and a gun on his hip might seem intimidating or even threatening.
But the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office wants young people to know that not every interaction with law enforcement has to be a bad one. Instilling in children a comfortable familiarity with and understanding about the local organizations that work to keep them safe can steer them toward the path to a bright future.
To that end, the Sheriff’s Office offers a wide variety of extra-curricular programs for its youth, including the Sheriff’s Teen Citizens Academy.
The Sheriff's Teen Citizens Academy is a 6-week program that allows Pinellas County teens the opportunity to take a behind-the-scenes look at the Sheriff's Office.
The program, a modified version of the Sheriff’s Citizens Academy for adults, is geared toward teens between ages 15 and 18 who have an interest in law enforcement but aren’t able to commit to a long-term educational program or a law enforcement explorer program.
Although dragging a teenager out of bed on Saturday mornings can be a struggle, after the first week, Teen Citizens Academy students will be so ready for the next tour, hands-on training, or demonstration that they’ll beat you to the car.
Whether they’re weaving through cones behind the wheel of a patrol cruiser, being guided down the halls of the Pinellas County Jail, or learning how to shoot the same guns Sheriff’s Office deputies are issued, students learn the agency’s ins and outs from more than what they see in movies, on television, or in the news.
At the conclusion of the academy, students attend a graduation ceremony with Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and several agency members at the Sheriff’s Administration Building.
Registration for the next Sheriff’s Teen Citizens Academy class (scheduled for Saturdays from February 3 through March 10) is due January 19, so complete your teens’ applications today!
For the full Sheriff’s Teen Citizens Academy schedule, an application, or to learn more about the course in general, visit www.pcsoweb.com/sheriffs-teen-citizens-academy, or contact Community Programs at 727-582-6612 or email@example.com.
As we broach the pinnacle of the holiday season and count down the final days of 2017, we look forward to social celebrations and new years’ resolutions with high expectations. But during a busy season of festivities and driving, plans for the future can plummet as quickly as the ball in Times Square if you don’t take the proper precautions.
In 2015, 10,265 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, which accounts for 29 percent of all traffic-related deaths in the United States, according to the Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
One death due to impaired driving is too many, let alone one every 51 minutes, and it is not always the irresponsibly impaired driver whose life is lost. In 2015, 181 children – occupants of vehicles with impaired drivers, occupants of other vehicles, pedestrians/bicyclists, etc. – died in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes, according to the NHTSA.
If potential lives lost aren’t enough motivation to stay away from the driver’s seat after drinking alcohol or taking other impairing drugs and medications, consider the tremendous financial burden that comes with a driving while impaired (DWI) charge.
According to the NHTSA, DWI costs range from $5,000 to $20,000, with the national average at $10,000. If you cause a crash, injury, or death, the costs are even higher – not to mention the incalculable value of a lost life.
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office conducts several DUI Wolf Pack operations throughout the county year-round to reduce deaths, injuries, and property damage associated with traffic crashes related to impaired driving, and the holiday season is no exception.
Fortunately, drug- and alcohol-impaired driving are easily preventable.
The obvious – and only – option for people who, for whatever reason, must drive, is to abstain from consuming mind-altering substances. However, if you are of legal drinking age, there are several alternative transportation options available.
Designating a responsible driver whom you can trust to abstain from drugs and alcohol to drive you is likely the cheapest option. Taxi services and ride-share programs like Uber and Lyft are also excellent options to get you home safely at relatively low costs – especially when compared to a $10,000 DWI.
In this busy season of parties, travel, and often drinking, holiday plans could end in tragedy if you don’t take the proper safety precautions. I urge you to be responsible, plan ahead, and DON’T drive while impaired – now, or at any time of year.
With November’s arrival comes a year’s worth of holiday anticipation and anxious preparation.
As we begin fighting the crowds at shopping malls and filling our calendars with decadent family meals and holiday events, it can be easy to forget that some families struggle to provide even the most basic necessities.
Although several organizations coordinate holiday fundraisers and charity events, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has the unique opportunity to give back to children and families with whom they have met and interacted, sometimes on multiple occasions.
Putting names and faces to the recipients of our holiday giving is added incentive to PCSO members who dedicate additional time and effort to benefitting the less fortunate during the season.
For the 14th consecutive year, this month, the Sheriff’s Office will kick off the holiday giving season through a partnership with the Indian Rocks Beach Rotary Club, Beach Community Food Pantry at Calvary Episcopal Church, Pinellas Suncoast Fire Rescue District, and Publix.
The partnership aims to limit the number of families who go hungry by delivering food to families who otherwise could not afford traditional holiday meals around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.
Volunteers load patrol cars with hearty Publix meals, including items like fully cooked turkeys, cornbread, mashed potatoes, green beans, loaves of bread, and more, and deputies deliver them to families whom they have identified in their daily work within the community.
Once we finish off the pumpkin pie and pack up the cornucopia, the PCSO sets its sights on hosting the largest law enforcement-organized holiday charity fundraiser in the Tampa Bay Area, which has raised more than $500,000 in donations and proceeds since its inception 24 years ago.
Ride & Run With The Stars, which this year will be Saturday, December 2nd, is a day’s worth of family activity including a 5K chipped race, 10K and 25-mile bike rides, a “Challenge” 5K run and 25-mile bike ride combination, and a “Family Fun” 1-mile walk or skate.
Post-race activities include the opportunity to refuel with food truck fare, a Kids Zone with arts and crafts and a climbing wall, a fly-in visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus on the Sheriff’s Office helicopter, and a silent auction with tables full of gift baskets, vacation tickets, gift certificates, and more.
The only thing more rewarding than a day of family exercise and activity is knowing that the proceeds support the Sheriff’s Christmas Sharing Project, through which PCSO members use the money raised to shop for holiday gifts, clothing, food, and other necessities for families in need.
Like the food drive partnership, the gift packages assembled during Ride & Run With The Stars’ shopping day are hand-delivered by familiar-faced deputies.
If you are interested in getting involved with Ride & Run With The Stars, whether by registering for a race, ordering a t-shirt, sponsoring the event, or making a donation, contact Lieutenant Joe Gerretz at 727-582-5960, and visit www.rideandrunwiththestars.com for more information.
In the meantime, let me be the first to wish you a happy thanksgiving, happy holidays, and happy giving!
This month, the witches, zombies, and ghouls will come knocking on your door in celebration of Halloween. Although, as always, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office will be on the lookout, there are a number of precautions you and your families can take to ensure everyone comes home safely.
As you prepare for the spookiest night of the year, be deliberate with every decision. When you're setting up your haunted house with cotton cobwebs, cardboard tombstones, and plastic spiders, be mindful of your visitors' safety. Establish a clear walkway free of tripping hazards (whether they are leashes and hoses or rubber snakes and eyeballs), and keep flammable materials away from fire. You can avoid fire by lighting your jack-o-lanterns with holiday lights instead of candles.
As important as it is to WOW 'em with your clever ingenuity, costumes should also be sensible: If your children are planning to wear masks, make sure they can see clearly while wearing them. Even if it doesn't fit their characters, ensure your children travel with flashlights so they can see where they're going, and attach reflective tape to their costumes so that vehicles can see them coming.
Always accompany young children as they trick-or-treat, and keep them in your sight at all times. Remember, they might not be the only little zombies running around! If you decide that your children are responsible enough to trick-or-treat without supervision, have a serious conversation to establish who they will walk with, what route they will take, what they should do in an emergency, and what time they should return home.
Whether or not you plan to chaperone this year's trick-or-treating excursion, review basic Halloween do's and don'ts with your children: Cross the street only at crosswalks and corners; don't approach houses that are unlit or appear to be empty; don't enter a stranger's house; and only eat individually wrapped candy - leave the loose treats or baked goods for the ghosts and goblins.
Likewise, instruct Halloween enthusiasts to keep the "tricks" to knock-knock jokes. Vandalism is a serious crime. Talk to your children about proper trick-or-treating behavior and manners, the consequences of their actions, and saying no to peer pressure. We'd hate for his/her jailbird costume to go from fun to functional.
Last but not least: Don't eat too much candy - you'll thank us later!
Since 2015, there have been 392 opioid-related deaths in Pinellas County. Unfortunately, the numbers are rising.
The average 9.7 deaths-per-month in 2015 has almost doubled to 17 deaths-per-month in 2016 and so far in 2017, which means a 78-percent increase in opioid-related deaths from 2015 to 2016.
This information, obtained from the Pinellas County Medical Examiner's Office, albeit staggering, does not reflect the average 150.3, 186.3, and 209.7 patients-per-month in 2015, 2016, and 2017, respectively, whom Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) has treated with Naloxone.
Naloxone, commonly referred to as "Narcan," is an "opioid antagonist." The nasal spray, once administered, counters the effects of overdose and puts patients into immediate opioid withdrawal.
Sometimes referred to as the "miracle drug," Narcan has, arguably, prevented another 5,296 overdose deaths since 2015.
The question: Why has the number of overdoses increased so drastically during the past few years?
The answer: fentanyl
Fentanyl, which hit the Pinellas County drug scene in the early 2000s but has become prevalent within the last six to eight months, is a powerful synthetic opioid similar to, but 80- to 100-times stronger than, morphine. To put this in perspective, the estimated lethal dose of fentanyl in humans is 2 milligrams. A one-gram sugar packet would contain up to 500 lethal doses.
When law enforcement eradicated the rampant "pill mills" that distributed drugs like oxycodone a few years ago, addicts turned to heroin - and now, fentanyl - to satisfy their addictions.
Although some drug-users choose to take fentanyl due to its accessibility - available for purchase on the dark web - and its cheaper, "cleaner" high, as described by informants, many addicts ingest the drug unintentionally.
"I think the biggest thing is that dealers are cutting their illegal drugs with the fentanyl to create more product at a cheaper price," said Narcotics Division Sergeant Jose Camacho. "That affects the addicts, because they're taking the same amount they usually take, but now with the fentanyl added, it creates a deadly cocktail, and they overdose and die."
This clandestine mixture puts at risk not only drug-users, but also deputies. When undercover detectives purchase narcotics - be they cocaine, heroin, Xanax, etc. - there is no longer a guarantee that is all they receive. Because fentanyl is transdermal, even touching the substance can result in dangerous side effects.
"The biggest thing for us is evidence collection," said Narcotics Division Sergeant Matthew McLane. "The testing, how it's packaged, and how it's dealt with out there is where we're making changes."
Likewise, patrol deputies who pull over drivers for as minimal an offense as a traffic stop could potentially come into contact with airborne powder containing the drug.
"We don't have an opioid tolerance," said Narcotics Division Sergeant Joleen Bowman. "So it takes such a small amount for us to have a chemical, lethal reaction."
Aside from staying informed and raising awareness about the issue, there is little community members can do to help eliminate the epidemic.
If citizens know friends or family members who purchase any type of drug off the streets, they should warn them about the potential dangers of fentanyl inclusion.
Citizens must be even more cautious around any white, powdery substances they encounter and should call law enforcement immediately if they do.
Simply put, the best thing the community can do to help the problem is "just say 'NO' to drugs."
Even from law enforcement's perspective, attacking the fentanyl epidemic is different from taking down its predecessors.
"From a Narcotics (Division) standpoint, if we hear or get results back from things saying they're fentanyl, we try to attack those as hard as we can right away, because we know that this is going to kill people, and it's going to kill them fast if we don't do our best to get the source," Sergeant Camacho said.
Because the drug is primarily shipped from overseas, there are no "fentanyl mills" to target.
K9s are unable to detect the drug, because it is equally lethal to them.
"There is no hub. We have to figure out how and where it's coming in, and that's always going to change." Sergeant Bowman said. "So it's going to be a process to learn how to get one step ahead on this one, but we're definitely trying to get there."
It’s back-to-school time, so get ready for your first lesson of the school year: traffic safety.
The streets on which you transport your children to school or they travel to the bus stop are populated by drivers on their cell phones, putting on their makeup, and eating breakfast as they rush to make it to work or drop off their own kids on time.
In addition to average pedestrians’ usual dangers, like drivers’ blind spots and violations, young children’s slower walking speeds, small stature, minimal traffic experience, still-developing cognitive abilities, and general impulsiveness increase the threat of an accident.
So whether you drive your children to school or you send them to the bus stop, we’ve got some back-to-school traffic safety tips for you and your students.
For your kids
So as you ease back into the school year, make sure that with alarm clocks, homework, and afterschool activities, you add everyday traffic safety to your weekday routine.
Click below to watch our new Back-to-School Traffic Safety PSA.
The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that there are 450,000 people in Florida with Alzheimer’s disease.
In 2016, Florida issued 245 statewide Silver Alerts, called when a senior suffering from irreversible deterioration of intellectual faculties, like Alzheimer’s, goes missing while driving a motor vehicle – and that number doesn’t include local alerts for cases not involving vehicles.
In 2010 (the most recent statistics available), there were 94,909 cases of endangered or disabled missing persons, according to the National Crime Information Center's (NCIC) Active/Expired Missing and Unidentified Analysis Reports.
A lot goes into locating a missing senior citizen. An average case can involve multiple law enforcement and public safety agencies, several outside community resources, hundreds of officers, countless man-hours, and sometimes thousands of dollars – not to mention the extreme emotional distress on family members and caregivers.
To ease this strain on resources and loved ones and protect our most vulnerable citizens, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has partnered with SafetyNET Tracking Systems.
Citizens enrolled in the SafetyNET program are equipped with a personalized tracking wristband. If the citizen goes missing, the caregiver contacts SafetyNET and law enforcement, who can log into the tracking portal, obtain critical information about the citizen and track the radio frequency signal emitted from the wristband to locate him/her.
The SafetyNET program, which can also be used for people with autism or similar special needs who have a tendency to wander, boasts an average rescue time of less than 30 minutes.
The lightweight, waterproof wristbands can be purchased or leased and are available with a variety of strap choices and optional add-ons like alarms, replacement batteries, transmitter testers, etc.
To qualify, the person receiving the band must live in a SafetyNET coverage zone, be diagnosed with a cognitive impairment, not drive a motor vehicle or take public transportation without supervision, and be under constant supervision and monitoring.
The SafetyNET website, www.safetynettracking.com, provides caregivers a host of resources ranging from program fact sheets and testimonials to FAQs and a blog that covers relevant topics and stories in the news.
Although SafetyNET is new to Pinellas County, the program’s concept is not. For years, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has sponsored Project Lifesaver, which offered the same style of wristband-tracking system. Although Project Lifesaver members must re-register with SafetyNET, the agency’s transition will save community money, time, and resources.
For more information and to enroll, visit www.safetynettracking.com or call 877-434-6384.
Non Emergency Line: (727) 582-6200 | In an Emergency call 911