Escambia County isn’t Mayberry anymore. Drugs, gangs and prostitution have all infected the area.
The Sheriff’s Department recognizes this. They also recognize that it will take a strong partnership between the community and law enforcement to clean up the region. That’s why they’re one of our Game Changers.
“We’re so far beyond that sleepy little village that many people want to believe that we are,” says Sheriff David Morgan. “We have the third highest rate of incarceration in the state of Florida. We have the eighth highest crime rate in Florida.”
But things are improving. Crimes against persons declined 13 percent from December 2010 to January 2011 and 20 percent from January to February of this year. Property crimes are also down, and arrests are up 5 percent.
Morgan credits the improvement to increased involvement with the community, what he calls a “collective buy-in.”
A greater emphasis on Neighborhood Watch programs has been a large part of that cooperation. Since Morgan took office, the number of active Neighborhood Watch programs has increased from 18 to 48. Morgan predicts they will soon hit 60.
Working in conjunction with Neighborhood Watch groups and a variety of other partners, the Sheriff’s Department has taken to cleaning up area neighborhoods one at a time. Their Operation Clean Sweep program eliminates trash, makes arrests, issues code violations and educates residents on preventative measures.
“We’ve made almost a verbal contract with the community,” says Morgan. “We tell neighborhoods, ‘You pick the worst part of your community, and we’ll come in and clean it up.’”
According to Morgan, focusing efforts on the most crime-ridden areas of the county is better for everyone.
“If I allow drugs and prostitution and gangs to prevail in Brownsville, they’ll be quickly coming to your neighborhood.”
Since its inception in September 2010, Operation Clean Sweep has cleared 315 tons of trash, made 45 arrests, and written 213 traffic citations and 231 code violations.
“Some people think it’s just a law enforcement sweep,” says Morgan. “No, it’s a community sweep. We want the people to begin to take pride again in their neighborhoods.”
More so than any other factor, Morgan points to the brutal murders of Byrd and Melanie Billings as the wake-up call for more proactive community involvement.
“There are moments in time that change the entire social dynamic. And I think the Billings case was one of those. I think the potential for violence in Escambia County touched a lot of people.”
“The community woke up in the 21st century.”
The community may finally be aware of area crime, but Morgan’s challenges extend far beyond law enforcement. He’s been forced to slash his budget by over $5 million.
“We’re doing so much more with less than I think has ever been done.”
Morgan has also faced pressure to privatize functions of the Sheriff’s Office in the name of cost-effectiveness.
“This rush-to-contract is something that’s been laid at the doorstep of the public sector as a cost-saving measure,” says Morgan. “It’s not.”
Morgan says he will continue to fight against privatization efforts and to protect what’s left of his budget.
“As an elected official, one of my primary jobs is to identify a strategic plan that meets the needs of Escambia County and holds the course. I can’t back up from that. But I can’t have unrestrained growth.”
Escambia County Sheriff’s Department
1700 W. Leonard St.