By Eddie Phillips, MacDill Air Force Base
The cornerstone of civilization has been the rule of law since ancient times. As defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, rule of law is “the authority and influence of law in society, especially when viewed as a constraint on individual behavior; the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publically disclosed legal codes and processes.”
The Leadership Tampa Class of 2020 (LT20) had the opportunity to spend the day with Tampa’s defenders of the rule of law; men and women of the Tampa Police Department (TPD) and Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO). Many in the group already experienced what patrol officers encounter during their individual ride-along.
Our day started at the HCSO Orient Road jail and finished at the Tampa Fire and Police Training Center. While these professional women and men walked us through policies, procedures, tools and techniques required to enforce the rule of law, LT20 learned it’s really about people. It was a cool morning as the class arrived at the Orient Road Jail and learned about the impressive facts behind the facility. The jail supports 27 law enforcement agencies and process about 130 people per day for well over 40,000 bookings per year. It is run like a small city with a $26M budget to pay for everything from laundry, to food, to transportation. The group also learned the jail is primarily used to house about 3,000 individuals in pre-trial confinement, meaning they may not have been convicted of a crime yet. After a conviction, the courts can assign up to a year in jail, or transfer the person to prison. The group toured the facility and saw all parts of the process from booking, to court, to confinement.
The officers in the jail spoke about their 1:72 ratios in the confinement areas. They explained that the 8 weeks of training after the Academy was just the first step to understanding the dynamic. In addition to the training and tools, each officer is a master at ‘verbal judo’ to control and shape behavior, helping each inmate to correct their behavior and return to society. Their life of service is not easy, but they seemed to make meaningful connections with everyone. Understanding the connectedness, whether to family, officers, or medics helped get to the core issues behind the initial incarceration. One officer said he connects with people by asking them to ‘look behind the uniform’ not as an officer, but as a mother, part of a family, or part of the greater Tampa community.
The group also learned mental health and drug use are two common factors behind many of the crimes committed. To combat this, HCSO takes an aggressive and innovative stance on getting to the root of behavior issues in the community. Their new program moves away from confinement as punishment and works to build stability at the individual level. Stability can shape behavior with many other added benefits. Medicine is also used to help treat issues. HCSO also builds partnerships with USF and other community agencies. The program focuses on not allowing crimes to define a person, but how every person can feel they are cared for. This also helps with the transition from jail back to society and is likely to reduce the rate of recidivism or relapse back into criminal behavior. Having a community approach to neglected individuals can have an impact on jail populations. We also heard from our senior leaders on this topic and their strategic message was on par with the morning’s session. It’s much harder to be smart on crime, than tough on crime, but it is worth it. A family unit will keep people out of jail, but it’s sometimes the family you make, not the one you are born into.
After a serious morning, and lunch with district commanders, it was time to head to the Training Center. There LT20 participated in some hands-on activities with unique teams and their tools of the department. In discussions, we learned the officers have a lot of discretion in what they do. Just as the county is working towards problem-solving courts, officers have a choice for most minor crimes. They get to decide the best course of action for each individual.
Our community demands accountability and officer safety is paramount. To say this is complex is an understatement. This was very evident during the use of force simulation where LT20 got to see how quick officers must act in a wide range of situations. The team was also surprised by the amount of officer training. While we all have a responsibility in our community, certainly many were not ready for law enforcement duties.
It was critical to see where officers are asked to make life-and-death decisions with imperfect information. The group also experienced high-speed police pursuits and special teams such as K9, SWAT, Explosive Disposal, and Traffic. All teams demonstrated the skills needed to influence or stop behaviors at an individual level.
As the group gathered to finish the day, 8 brave souls were able to experience the electronic persuasion device for 5 seconds each. This alone may have been a good bit of prevention towards any future crimes.
Tampa has a lot to be proud of including groundbreaking programs, leaders with vision, and professional, well-trained law enforcement officers representing the rule of law. At the end of the day, LT20 was left to ponder what they can do. The rule of law is everyone’s responsibility and an active community is a caring one. First, everyone can build trust in law enforcement, tell the story of police as well as criminals. Movies and culture do not do these brave first responders justice. Second, change how you see people, like an iceberg, you only see very little of a person in your interactions, and there is a life behind the profile picture. Third, get involved! Everyone can contribute in their own way to help build connections, focus resources, and build a family bigger than one family tree. And as a bonus, don’t forget to vote.
A special thank you to all of our first responders who put their lives on the line to help us on our worst of days. Stay safe and know LT has your back.