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Branaman: It’s time for Alachua County Sheriff Clovis Watson Jr. to invest in public safety

OPINION

BY JODY BRANAMAN

While many Sheriff Departments in the State of Florida and the communities they serve have realized the importance of recruiting and retaining the best qualified men and women to join their ranks, Alachua County has experienced a disturbing trend. Alachua County Sheriff’s Deputies are leaving our department to work for other agencies such as the University of Florida Police Department, the Florida Highway Patrol, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, among a number of other agencies that offer better benefits and compensation. What do all these agencies have that our Sheriff’s Department doesn’t? The leadership of those agencies have prioritized retention and recruitment, while Alachua County Sheriff Clovis Watson Jr. has not.

The numbers don’t lie. Since Sheriff Watson Jr. took office on January 5, 2021, approximately 200 personnel have left the Alachua County Sheriff’s Department in search of better jobs at other agencies and in other counties.  Also during that time, personnel departures have far outpaced the rate of new hires. Since January of 2021, the Sheriff’s Department has lost 18 dispatchers while hiring only one. The Department lost 52 Jail Detention Officers, while hiring only 13. The Department has lost 40 Deputy Sheriffs, while hiring only 14, and the Department lost 63 support staff members, while hiring only 35.  Our uniform patrol division is operating at critical staffing levels more often than not, and the Court Security Bureau is at or below critical staffing levels daily. These staffing shortages have a direct impact on public safety and can potentially delay our response times during life-and-death situations. Given that overall crime has risen nearly 8% in Alachua County in the past year, the public must ask themselves if we can really continue to do more with less.

With public safety threatened, Sheriff Watson Jr. should be doing everything possible to bolster our ranks and provide a career path that both retains and attracts highly-qualified and dedicated men and women, who are willing to risk their lives to keep our communities safe. Instead, the Sheriff has turned his back on us.

The North Central Chapter of the Florida PBA recently filed an Unfair Labor Practice lawsuit against Sheriff Clovis Watson Jr. for not negotiating in good faith. For months, we negotiated in good faith with the Sheriff’s bargaining unit. We offered reasonable proposals that reflected the needs of our members and are consistent with the benefits provided by other local law enforcement agencies. Despite our good faith efforts, each of our proposals was rejected with a disingenuous counter offer that was inconsistent with the pay and benefits afforded to other sheriff employees in Florida. In fact, Alachua County ‘s Sheriff Department ranks 37 out of 67 Sheriff Departments in the State of Florida for starting pay.

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The public should care about Sheriff Watson Jr.’s commitment to investing in Alachua County Sheriff’s Department personnel because maintaining and recruiting highly-qualified men and women to serve on the front lines of public safety will have a significant impact on our ability to keep our communities safe. As crime continues to rise, along with population growth, more manpower is needed to fully protect and serve all of our fellow citizens. One major incident or violent crime can take a significant portion of our patrol officers off the streets for several hours, leaving numerous neighborhoods without law enforcement protection.

We urge Sheriff Watson Jr. to negotiate a fair and equitable contract that reflects the needs of our officers, while building a strong career path for the future of our department. We also call on the citizens of Alachua County to send a message to Sheriff Watson Jr. and our County Commissioners to support safe staffing levels at the Alachua County Sheriff’s Department. It’s time to offer competitive benefits packages to retain the best men and women in our department, who keep our county safe each and every day. And it’s time for Sheriff Clovis Watson Jr. to invest in public safety!

Jody Branaman is president of the North Central Chapter of the Florida PBA, which represents approximately 800 members throughout North Central Florida.

The opinions expressed by letter or opinion writers are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of AlachuaChronicle.com. Letters may be submitted to info@alachuachronicle.com and are published at the discretion of the editor.

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