Sheriff needs support: More deputies, higher wages required, UCF study shows

Osceola County Sheriff Russ Gibson talks with one of his deputies in front of the historic county courthouse.

The Osceola County Sheriff’s Office is struggling to fill vacancies, keep salaries competitive and retain employees, according to a new study conducted by the University of Central Florida.

The department is down nearly 40 deputies and needs to increase its sworn workforce by 10 percent to reach optimal levels, the report found.

There are also 17 vacancies in non-sworn positions, including 10 empty 911 dispatcher spots.

Future growth is expected to add over 100,000 new residents to the area by 2036, placing additional strain on Osceola County’s largest law enforcement agency.

UCF professors and research staff launched their 15-month study in mid-2017 and found that relatively low salaries and increased workloads are contributing to higher turnover rates at the department.

It’s noted that short staffing can lead to extra stress on officers, slower response times and shorter times deputies can spend on each call, the report found.

“The Sheriff’s Office will be using the information from this study in order to develop a strategic plan that will be effective for the agency and our community,” said Sheriff Russ Gibson in a statement March 20.

The study was conducted in partnership with the Sheriff’s Office to identify future needs of the department as Osceola’s population continues to climb.

Kissimmee is expected to continue growing at a steady rate and see a 27 percent increase, but St. Cloud could undergo a massive population boom of over 77 percent, or about 81,023 residents total by 2035. This would make the once-small rural community just 7,000 to 10,000 residents shy of incorporated Kissimmee’s population.

This growth, coupled with a steady flow of tourists and out-of-state visitors, is expected to increase the need for law enforcement over the next two decades.

But as the report points out, the Sheriff’s Office is already facing staffing vacancies, especially among patrol deputies.

Last year’s passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act requires a trained law enforcement officer at every public school in Florida (and two at every high school) or else implement a highly controversial teacher guardianship program.

This state mandate forced the Sheriff’s Office to pull deputies from other areas and move them to local schools, contributing to vacancies at the department, the report stated.

The workload for officers has increased sharply over the last decade, with the department receiving about 4,514 more calls for service per month on average in 2017 than it did in 2006.

Another challenge facing the Sheriff’s Office is high turnover and low retention rates for sworn officers. Like many law enforcement agencies across the country, Osceola competes to attract a small pool of police academy graduates, and employee retention averages only about five years at the department, according to the report.

According to the Census, 49 percent of people in Osceola County speak a language other than English, making future recruitment efforts of bilingual officers critical.

The report suggests offering Spanish-speaking incentives for deputy recruitment because “available evidence suggests a need to hire several more bilingual people.”

The Sheriff’s Office hired more officers in the last two years, but not enough to keep up with civilian demand, according to the report.

There are currently 413 sworn officers, but by 2035, the Sheriff’s Office will need 466. To cover law enforcement needs of the entire county – not just unincorporated areas – and tourists, it would take anywhere from 753 to 1,130 sworn officers.

To address these concerns, the Sheriff’s Office has doubled the number of officers-in-training sponsored each year. It has also relaxed policies on beards, tattoos and past marijuana useage, and the number of times an individual can take the entry exam to reflect more realistic standards and attitudes, the report stated.

In 2017, Sheriff Russ Gibson created a special recruitment unit to focus soley on bringing in qualified talent.

He's also been working with County Manager Don Fisher to secure property for a west side command center along U.S. Highway 192 to provide better services to a rapidly growing part of Osceola County.

Salary is a point of dissatisfaction for deputies, the report found during in-depth interviews with sworn officers.

Many cited higher salaries in nearby agencies like the Orlando Police Department and Orange County Sheriff’s Office as a reason why they leave Osceola County.

Unlike Orange and Orlando, Osceola deputies aren’t unionized. Deputies in Osceola start out at a lower pay rate than these two agencies, max out at a lower level and don’t have consistent raises based on length of service or outstanding performance.

But upper management has little control over these factors, the report notes, because the Osceola County Commission – not the Sheriff’s Office – determines the annual budget and the presence (or absence) of a collective bargaining agreement.

The Sheriff’s Office needs a budget increase to raise minimum and top-out entry level positions, according to the report.

“The expected significant expansion of Osceola County’s population creates an urgent need for OCSO to be able to attract and retain sufficient numbers of people to fill existing and future sworn and civilian staffing positions,” the report stated.

Sheriff's Office Public Information Officer Jacob Ruiz said Gibson will meet with each county commissioner to discuss the importance of implementing a step increase salary program at the department.

If all goes well, pay increases could go into effect by October when the new fiscal year begins.

“The Board of County Commissioners has shown a commitment to the public safety of this county and has already implemented a step plan with the county EMS department,” Ruiz said in a March 20 statement. “The Sheriff’s Office is confident that we can create a step plan that properly values employees while being fiscally responsible.”