ST. PETERSBURG — The first step in what will be a difficult journey to create its own law enforcement academy has been cleared by the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.
Thursday morning at St. Petersburg College’s Allstate Center, the Region IX Criminal Justice Training Council voted 8-4 to allow a “needs assessment” to be conducted. That assessment will determine if a partnership between the Pasco sheriff’s office and the Pasco County school district can move forward with a future police academy.
The sheriff’s office has already started the process of separating from its partnership with Pasco-Hernando Community College on the current police academy. That partnership had been ongoing since about 1974.
“There’s still a long way to go in this process, but I think our training staff and all the members of the Pasco sheriff’s office, we were able to prove there’d be a much better future working with the school board,” Nocco said.
The assessment will be conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and results are expected to be completed by March. The matter will then be added to the council’s April agenda, Region IX Chairman John Meeks said.
During a Dec. 3 school board meeting, it was announced that the academy will be housed at Marchman Technical Education Center in New Port Richey. Assistant Superintendent Ray Gadd spoke during Thursday’s meeting and told the assembled law enforcement members that Marchman is undergoing a $10 million renovation. He said there are talks concerning several parcels of land to create a new gun range for cadets and sheriff’s office members if an academy is ultimately approved.
Members of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office training staff have already relocated from PHCC to Marchman.
“In the process of studying this police academy, we went around and talked to some academies and some technical institutes,” Gadd said. “The thing that rose to the top as the single most important variable in establishing an effective police academy was the relationship between the sheriff’s office and the academy providing those services.”
A PowerPoint presentation was conducted by Lindsey Moore, general council for the sheriff’s office, which explained the agency’s concerns about continuing a relationship with PHCC.
Those concerns included problems with equipment, access to facilities and classrooms and the location of the academy at PHCC’s Dade City campus.
Another issue cited was the “ethics” of instructors teaching at the academy, which the sheriff’s office says has been a problem for “years.”
Moore said many of the staff and instructors had disciplinary and ethical issues at their former agencies.
“That causes a direct issue for the sheriff’s office as well as other agencies in the area because … We have received information from several of our new hires that went to PHCC that said they heard from instructors, they were told directly not to apply at the Pasco sheriff’s office, which has a direct impact on our ability to hire qualified, ethical and well-trained new law enforcement officers and corrections officers,” Moore said.
In November, two instructors, James Nagy and Don Ruminer were fired, while the academy’s director, Nancy Bunch was placed on probation.
Ruminer, a PHCC law enforcement academy instructor since 2010, was fired at the end of November following an investigation into a sexual harassment claim against him. Nagy, who spent 23 years as a member of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and began working with PHCC in 1991, was fired because he did not cooperate with the investigation, though he was not involved with the harassment, school officials said.
Bunch was placed on probation for not taking action. Bunch, who has been with the institution since 2010, later announced previous plans to retire at the end of January. Officials have said the retirement is not related to the investigation or subsequent discipline.
The relationship between PHCC and the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office had eroded, according to Nocco. During the meeting, he pointed to a letter written in August to highlight the chasm.
The letter from Pasco-Hernando Community College President Katherine Johnson addresses the sheriff’s office’s concerns about an ad hoc committee.
“My desire to inform you and [Hernando] Sheriff (Al) Nienhuis of this committee creation was not to seek your approval or confirmation of its membership,” the letter read.
Johnson addressed the group Thursday morning, highlighting the 1,348 law enforcement and 722 correctional cadet graduates from the school since 1991.
“We truly recognize and support the mantra of superior training, which has always been our first concern — knowing that split-second decisions made by well-trained officers can result in the preservation of life instead of death and protecting rather than inadvertently harming the citizens of our region,” Johnson said.
Johnson said when the concerns were raised about individual instructors, she conducted an investigation and also formed the ad hoc committee to review the hiring of staff and instructors. That committee included law enforcement members.
She also pointed to an FDLE audit of the school facilities in December. “The results of the audit were perfect,” Johnson said.
The FDLE did not monitor classes during its audit, according to documents, but did look into instructor certifications, purchase orders, contracts and other aspects of the academy.
Johnson and Bunch said they wanted to continue the school’s relationship with the sheriff’s office.
“You talk about the collaborative efforts with the Pasco sheriff’s office, the majority of our instructors are from Pasco,” Bunch said. “I’ll be the first to admit if it wasn’t for the professionalism of the instructors and their personnel, we wouldn’t be able to do an academy and I’ve always appreciated that.”
When asked by Meeks if that relationship could continue, Nocco responded: “No.”
In a related matter, the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office requested to be removed from Region IX and placed in Region VI. That move would also severe ties between PHCC and the law enforcement agency.
Region IX includes PHCC, Hillsborough Community College, Manatee Technical Institute, Manatee Sheriff’s Office Training Center, and St. Petersburg College.