shooting scene for S.O. story

Members of the Citrus County Sheriff's Office work at the scene of a fatal shooting on South Monroe Street in Beverly Hills. One male victim was shot and died at the scene during a reported argument the morning of March 25, 2020. Four candidates for Citrus County Sheriff met with the editorial board on Wednesday, June 17 to make a case for their candidacy.

The four Republican sheriff candidates sat down individually with the Citrus County Chronicle editorial board this week and discussed why they should be the county’s top law enforcement officer. This is what they said.

Patrick Crippen

On Citrus County Sheriff’s Office morale: Crippen says that he is relatable and the CCSO’s turnover of 70 employees since Sheriff Mike Prendergast took over the agency three years ago shows there’s a problem.

Crippen said he’s met with deputies and the biggest complaint they share with him is not low pay, but wanting “fair and balanced” discipline.

“The leadership is lacking,” he said of Prendergast, adding that Prendergast, with more than 30 years of military policing experience, lacks the experience for civilian law enforcement and setting policy.

On race relations: Crippen said the county is lucky that problems have not occurred here because the CCSO relationship with the community has evaporated.

On changes: If elected, Crippen said he would involve the CCSO more with the community, review the agency and change or stop programs that weren’t working, create a citizen’s advisory board, and post the sheriff’s office budget online for all to review

On traffic: Crippen said he would enlarge the agency’s traffic enforcement efforts, create a unit dedicated to traffic enforcement so as to free-up other deputies, and better educate the public about safe driving in highly used thoroughfares and road construction areas.

“It’s almost a reboot. We have to go back to basics,” Crippen said.

On drugs: Crippen said that the CCSO’s effort should on getting drug dealers off the streets, but focus on those bigger suppliers and get help to the low level users. Crippen complains that Sheriff Prendergast simply recycles drug abusers through the judicial system and focuses on arrest statistics.

“His approach is not working,” Crippen said. More focus should be put toward keeping young people away from drugs to start with through law enforcement mentor programs and other social programs.

On mental health: Crippen said that deputies need more specialized training when interacting with people with mental illness and he would work with local mental health care institutions to ensure those with mental health problems get the help they need when interacting with local law enforcement.

Mel Eakley

—On community relationship: Eakley told the Chronicle that policing today cannot be accomplished by law enforcement alone, but rather by a working relationship between the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office and a multitude of social service organizations.

“Those are the key relationships that started to dwindle away or no longer exist (when Prendergast took office),” Eakley said.

On law enforcement efforts: Eakley said if elected he would re-implement intelligence-led policing.

Intelligence-led policing incorporates crime trends and data, allowing police decision makers to allocate resources to combat crime and develop crime-fighting strategies.

 “Where most of your decisions everyday … is driven by data. Where are the problems? How do we know where they’re at, and rapidly deploy people and strategies to stop (crime) patterns or trends,” Eakley said.

“This is not self-initiated low level drug arrests,” Eakley said, citing Sheriff Prendergast’s focus on drug arrests.

On the police killing of George Floyd: Eakley said one of the biggest problems the videos showed was three Minnesota police officers standing nearby doing nothing to stop the incident.

If elected, Eakley said he would ensure deputies are trained to see and understand law enforcement behavior that violates agency policy and call out deputies that violate it.

One way to help address that is by the use of deputy body cameras. Currently, the CCSO does not use body cameras. Eakley said body cameras help protect the public and deputies.

“People behave better when they’re on body cameras,” he said.

While the cameras can be costly, they save money in the long run, Eakley said.

As a result of body cameras and people being more aware of their behavior there are fewer injuries, he said. When defendants are shown body camera footage, the result is less court time and defendants are moved to settle cases faster. Complaints against deputies by the public are settled faster too when both sides review the body camera footage, Eakley said.

“Leaders need to own what their people are doing,” he said, and not using body cameras allows leadership to deny knowledge of wrongdoing.

Drug enforcement: Eakley thinks too much arrest focus is being put on small-time offenders. “We should be going after people selling pounds not packets (of drugs),” Eakley said.

Meanwhile, the county and CCSO needs to work more on getting those addicted the rehab help they need and breaking the chain of sellers and buyers, he said.

“We can’t arrest our way out of these problems,” Eakley said.

On mental health: Eakley said that one of the current problems between the CCSO and the people with mental health problems after they are arrested is that they are simply put on the street again with no resources.

As sheriff, Eakley said he would work toward a county comprehensive mental health plan for people who need it and create a community mental health unit with medical leadership.

On growth: Eakley said the CCSO needs to anticipate population growth as the parkway makes its way into Citrus County.

“You have to start planning for this now,” he said.

Michael Klyap

On employee morale and pay: A Citrus County Sheriff’s Office deputy beginning annual salary currently is $38,064 with a $2,000 signing bonus. Klyap described it as “... poor” and said deputies deserved more money.

“I want to put a union in” which can negotiate salaries and give CCSO employees stability and predictability with their salaries, Klyap said.

“If you honestly believe in your people you shouldn’t be afraid of a union,” Klyap said.

On community policing: Klyap said deputies need to be given the time to park their cruisers and walk communities and engage people in their neighborhoods. Knowing the people in the neighborhoods allows the CCSO to build better relationships.

“We don’t have that anymore,” he said, adding later, “We need to go into the community the way we did years ago. It worked.”

On interacting with other governmental bodies: Klyap said the top county law enforcement officer needs to attend local school board and other county meetings where he can interact with elected officials and the public. Klyap said that incumbent Sheriff Mike Prendergast spends far too much time getting personally involved with minor drug arrests and photo opportunities.

“We don’t need our sheriff playing cop,” he said.

On CCSO organization: Klyap said that if elected most of the qualified and hardworking senior officers would likely stay in their positions. But the agency is top heavy and could better utilize its financial resources to ensure higher salaries for rank-and-file deputies.

On race relations: Klyap thinks that the discussion needs to move away from race and instead have the CCSO build a relationship and trust with communities. “We need to get in the communities.

From where I come from we knew our cops,” he said.

Sheriff Mike Prendergast

On why voters should reelect him: “Because I’ve done exactly what I said I would do,” Prendergast told the newspaper’s editorial board.

When running for sheriff during the 2016 election, Prendergast said he talked to county residents and their priority for him was addressing illegal drugs and traffic.

Since his election, Prendergast said drug arrests have increased 180 percent and his agency has overseen a decrease in traffic accidents through education and citations.

As for traffic, in 2017, Prendergast’s deputies issued 13,414 traffic warnings, about the average for the prior two years. By 2018, the number jumped to 20,332. During 2019, the agency’s traffic unit had issued 21,150, nearly twice the number four years before.

The same was seen for the number of traffic citations.

In 2017, deputies issued 2,904 traffic citations, a few hundred more than during the previous two years. By 2018, the number jumped to 4,574. During 2019, the agency’s traffic unit issued 6,966, nearly three times the number four years before.

Did the rise in citations and warnings have a positive effect on traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities? It appears so.

In 2017, the number if traffic crashes reached 3,100. But by 2018 the number fell to 3,018. By 2019, it fell again to 2,950.

“That doesn’t happen by accident,” Prendergast said of safer county roads.

On deputy pay: “Deputy pay is always a chronic challenge,” Prendergast said.

But Prendergast said during his first term as sheriff he’s made available to his employees 12% in merit pay opportunities and that almost 80 percent of his employees were awarded their maximum merit bonuses. He said he is also working to get CCSO a 3.5% pay raise this year.

Prendergast said he also offers employees fully paid health insurance and substantially subsidized health insurance benefits for their families.

On criticism too many deputies are leaving under Prendergast’s leadership: Prendergast told the Chronicle that during his tenure, 70 deputies left his department. Of those, 24 retired and many of the others left for other career opportunities and higher pay, During that time, Prendergast said, he’s hired 65 new deputies and is interviewing five more.       

—On criticism that his department focuses too much on arrests involving small amounts of drugs: Prendergast said voters gave him a mandate that they wanted illegal drugs and drug sales stamped out.

“We’re absolutely not arresting the wrong people,” Prendergast said, adding that many of those his deputies arrest have multiple drug violations and trafficking histories.

Prendergast said the reason for a lack of arrests involving large amounts of drugs is because “the drug dealers are running scared.”

Those arrested who are fueling drug addiction are precisely the people that county residents want arrested, he said.

—On use of deadly force: Prendergast said his agency, with both state and federal accreditation, is far ahead of many other agencies to ensure force is not used unless necessary.

Following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Prendergast said his department reviewed its policy of deadly force and to use it only when life is at risk.

He said that in 2019, his agency responded to 173,556 calls for emergency and non-emergency help. He said that less than 1/10 of 1% involved any use of force at all when making an arrest. He said that was 1/16 of the national average.

On community policing: Prendergast said that community policing hasn’t been done away with but evolved into intelligence-led policing. Walking a beat as police did decades ago just doesn’t work well in counties such as Citrus where residential developments are sprawling and few people are outside.

Instead, CCSO deputies and its leadership play an important role and building relationships with organizations such as youth leagues, churches, and other county governments.  

Contact Chronicle reporter Fred Hiers at fred.hiers@chronicleonline.com or 352-397-5914.