Police Can’t Catch a Break with James.

On 2/11/2021 I attended negotiations between the City and the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) and what caught my attention was the topic of “take home cars” and I walked out with more information that I will share with readers thanks in part to FOP Vincent Castiglia, Florida Labor Council / Staff Representative. Jose-Luis Rodriguez, Chief Human Resource Officer represented the city and both sides were respectful of each others opinions.
Months ago I learned the Police Dept. switched from the PBA to the FOP and questioned the move. A little history below.

For over 20 years the Police Dept. was represented by the PBA (Police Benevolent Association) and members voted overwhelming to switch to the FOP because membership felt they were ignored by PBA County and their leadership.
Within the PBA, chapters can not make decisions for themselves without the County’s
involvement or approval. There have been many times over the years that the County leadership made decisions in direct opposition to the vote of their membership. Appears to me the PBA interest was more concerned with the city than it’s membership.

The FOP is organized differently, in a bottom-up format. The FOP is a member driven organization and is the oldest and largest police union in the country. The local membership and leadership make decisions for themselves and the members have a vote.

The issue regarding the take home vehicles. The city has recently taken a stance that they will not cover an employee who is operating a city vehicle “portal to portal” meaning to and from work if they are at-fault in a crash. This is based on a court case from about 2014 “Garcia vs Hollywood” which set a bad legal precedent. In that case, the Hollywood officer was represented by PBA. Mr. Castigila was making the point, case law will not change until it is challenged in court, and should the time come, FOP is willing to do so. Unfortunately, until then cities will use this case law to their benefit if they believe it suits them.

Currently, WPB Police have take-home vehicles (marked and unmarked). This is a benefit to the city as much as the employee. There are numerous fleet studies that show a take-home vehicle program is more cost-effective because the vehicle isn’t continually being operated and there is a sense of ownership to the officer. These vehicles are essentially the officer’s office on wheels so they take care of the vehicle and it lasts longer in the fleet. The other benefit is a quick response to incidents for which officers are called out from home. These can range from a detective responding to a crime scene, a K9 handler being brought in to conduct a track/ search, or specialty units like SWAT, Bomb Squad, etc. Without a take-home vehicle program, officers would have to respond from home to HQ (head quarters), load their vehicle and then respond to the scene accordingly.
There are several problems with this approach. As far as detectives, the main concerns are evidence protection and witnesses.
Patrol officers respond to scenes and hold it until the arrival of the detectives who assume the investigation. The detective is the subject matter expert who then makes decisions on how the scene is processed and evidence is collected.

Timeliness of their arrival is extremely important especially when the scene is outdoors.
Timely response by units such as SWAT is simply a life-saving issue. The quicker these specially trained officers can respond to a scene, the quicker they can take action. Who doesn’t remember the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Are you aware the Pulse nightclub shooter originally surveilled City Place as a potential target?

Officers currently pay the city a fuel surcharge for the use of the take-home vehicles. This is calculated on a sliding scale. The amount increases as with the number of miles until it reaches the max 40-mile limit. This was put in place around the time of the 2008 market crash and the high fuel prices. The city calculates the 40 mile radius “as the crow flies” from police HQ. They completely ignore the fact when the officer crosses the city limits, they are technically on duty and have a duty to act.

In new negotiations the city has suggested officers obtain a rider to their personal insurance policies to cover the operation of the city vehicles. The problem is, there very few insurance companies that will issue these riders. These can be very expensive and the officer has to move their personal vehicle/ property to these companies for coverage. The insurance company will not issue the rider solely for the city vehicle because the officer does not own it. Based on the experiences of officers from around the state, even with the rider when a claim is made to the insurance company they deny the claim and states the officer was operating an emergency vehicle and has a duty to act at any time. The officer is then placed in between the insurance company and the city. Eventually, the insurance company of the party whom he collided with will then file a civil lawsuit against the officer.
The city covering police cars has not been an issue until lately. It has never been an issue
through several city administrations. The exact reason for the change is unknown, but in my opinion James is abusing his authority once again.

For this fact, most agencies have agreed to cover the officer “portal to portal”. It is kind of the cost of doing business, and they are simply seeking the city to do the same for our officers so they can do their jobs and serve the city.
At the recent meeting the city represented the issue to be much bigger than it really is. The vast majority of crashes involving police vehicles are while the officer is in performance of their duties…..ON DUTY. The number of off duty crashes, in which the officer is at fault are small, and I can’t believe Mayor James is treating our police officers in this manner.

A comment was made about parking the police cars, and not taking them home if the city doesn’t agree to cover the officers, the union will recommend the officers not participate in the take-home vehicle program and cease the fuel surcharge deductions. This is the only way to limit the potential liability the city is exposing the officers to by not covering them. Additionally, there is not enough parking to store all the police vehicles so there may come a time when the public sees Clematis Street lined with marked police vehicles. Hopefully they wont get to that point.

While I am writing about police cars are you aware the police department is going to be forced to take approximately 20 vehicles out of the fleet this year (2021) due to being contractually obligated (age of vehicle/ mileage) to do so.
There are no replacements for these vehicles because the city denied a capital improvement request made last year for the purchase of the replacements. As a result, officers will be “hot seating” cars meaning they will operate the vehicle for their 11.5 shift and then hand it off to the officer relieving them who will drive it for his/her 11.5 shift. This 24 hour operation of these vehicles will certainly reduce the lifespan. The vehicle problem only gets worse in the coming budget year when another block of vehicles will have to come out of the fleet and there is an existing shortage.

WPB is currently 18 of 22 police agencies in PBC, earning lowest paid in dollars and benefits.
The other agencies are very small cities & PBC School Board. WPB is currently significantly behind smaller cities with smaller tax bases. This is the result of many years of ignoring the issue and allowing the police dept. to deteriorate. As a result the city has a serious recruiting & retention problem. The pay issue makes it very difficult to attract the best candidates. Many have been passed over by other agencies and our police dept. are becoming a training ground. Young officers are gaining experience while looking for a better paying job with another city or PBSO, and who can blame them if they are risking their life for us don’t they deserve to be paid properly? This issue then leads to other issues like staffing. When they can’t recruit, they can’t staff properly. Short staffing then leads to management being forced to pay overtime or order officers to fill patrol shifts (paid in OT).

Remember the PSC Security no bid contract with the city for $7.9 million dollar that resulted in a law suit and the city was forced to send it out for bid? No surprise PSC won the contract again, only difference the new contract was for $9,045,086,50 and when asked about a million dollar increase James stated the cost of living was being raised to $15.00/hour and the taxpayers paid to raise PSC staff wages, and now the city’s police officers are with hat in hand asking for a decent salary and benefits.
The WPB Police Dept. contract ended on Sept. 30, 2021 and they continue to put their lives on the line for us for going on 6 months, while James with the aid of City Commissioners gave taxpayer dollars to PSC.

James wants the police to add their police vehicle to their private insurance while he takes advantage of taxpayers by having the city purchase his Chevrolet SUV. Taxpayers pay the insurance, and James receive a $500.00/month gas allowance.

Our police officers deserve better.