CLEARWATER - Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welch fired off a letter to the Florida Highway Patrol Wednesday, complaining that Pinellas sheriff's deputies too often have been picking up the slack for state troopers on traffic wrecks.
By law, the patrol is required to handle wrecks that happen on state highways. Here, that includes some of the busiest roads in the county, including U.S. 19, Ulmerton Road, Interstate 275 and Roosevelt Boulevard,
Pinellas sheriff's deputies have had to help out with some of those crashes, Welch wrote in his letter.
Welch's letter cites many of the statistics included in Sheriff Bob Gualtieri's "Operational Overview 2013," which appears on the sheriff's office's website. The numbers provided by the highway patrol, though, paint a different picture, and the agency has already nearly doubled the number of troopers working here in recent years.
The sheriff's office assisted troopers 1,468 times in 2012, for an average of 122 times a month, requiring an average of 2.3 responders per call, according to Welch's letter and Gualtieri's website. The average time spent by deputies on an FHP assist call was slightly less than an hour and a half, the sheriff's numbers indicate.
In addition, deputies worked 46 wrecks last year that troopers should have handled, according to Gualtieri's analysis.
Pinellas County falls under the purview of FHP Troop C, which covers seven counties: Pinellas, Hillsborough, Polk, Pasco, Hernando, Sumter and Citrus. Unlike Pinellas, those other counties are either mostly or entirely rural and can stand to wait until a trooper arrives to investigate wrecks, Welch wrote.
"Pinellas County is distinct within the Troop C coverage area in that it is significantly more densely populated than neighboring counties," Welch said in his letter, which was emailed Wednesday to Julie J. Jones, the executive director of the FHP.
"While a crash incident in a neighboring rural county could reasonably sit and wait several hours for a trooper to come; in contrast, a crash on any of our urban roadways during rush hour makes it nearly impossible for our citizens to wait for an extended period of time for service while blocking traffic.
"In an effort to ensure the safety of our citizens, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has responded to fill the gap in service."
While police departments and sheriff's offices that fall under Troop C's jurisdiction have assisted troopers investigating wrecks, they typically haven't investigated crashes the FHP was supposed to handle. Neither the St. Petersburg Police Department nor the Pasco County Sheriff's Office investigates wrecks the patrol is supposed to, spokesmen with those agencies said.
"To date, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office had not taken the hard line approach that other counties have by not working FHP crashes," Welch wrote.
Welch suggests in his letter that the highway patrol take a fresh look at how it assigns troopers within its seven-county jurisdiction.
"It is clear that the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is playing a significant role in facilitating the Florida Highway Patrol's primary duty of covering crash scene investigations within Pinellas County," Welch wrote. "As this is a statutory requirement for FHP, we urge you to reevaluate your resource allocation for Troop C and to provide adequate resources to ensure the safety of our citizens."
However, the FHP already is devoting more manpower to Pinellas County, said spokeswoman Leslie Palmer. In 2011, the highway patrol increased the number of troopers in Pinellas from 13 to 25, and that staffing level is unlikely to change, she said.
"Right now, we feel the number is certainly adequate," she said.
Palmer also took exception to the way Pinellas County is interpreting state law. Law enforcement agencies at the state, county, and municipal levels are equally responsible for enforcing traffic laws, and that responsibility includes investigating wrecks, she said.
"It's a collaborative effort," she said. "We've worked crashes in parking lots because that's what needs to be done."
Palmer also had a different set of statistics than the sheriff's office.
In 2012, there were 18,059 wrecks in Pinellas, to which 14 different agencies responded, she said.
Of those, the highway patrol investigated 5,493. Troopers handled 91 percent of the wrecks in unincorporated Pinellas County, which is the sheriff's jurisdiction, she said.
The sheriff, meanwhile, handled 2,832 wrecks, Palmer said. The St. Petersburg Police Department handled 4,638, Palmer said.