OUR POSITION: After 10 years, Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight announces he won’t stand for re-election in 2020.
When he took office after his first election in 2008, Tom Knight set out to revitalize and upgrade a hidebound sheriff’s department that operated in a continual fog of minor controversy.
Professionally, Knight was an outsider coming into the top job at the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, having spent 20 years across the state with the Florida Highway Patrol. But he’d grown up in Venice, graduated from Venice High School and started his career with the Sarasota City Police Department. Knight had deep roots in South County, as well as strong connections throughout the region’s law enforcement community.
His first step after election was to form a task force that aimed to reorganize the department and make it “into a model of progressive law enforcement,” as a Sheriff’s Office press release put it last week.
Knight’s new “strategic plan” wasn’t just for show — or, rather, not strictly for show. It was intended as a message of change with a focus on best practices and new approaches to problem-solving and law enforcement.
Out with the old …
Ten years later, Knight has backed up the early promise. And it’s accurate to say the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office has, indeed, become something of a model police agency.
Credit to Knight, a skilled communicator who has an open and affable personality. He is loose and engaging one-on-one, comfortable and confident with neighborhood groups and with other public officials.
There were some tests early in his tenure — notably involving his handling two high-profile, use-of-force shootings by deputies — but he managed to steer through the difficulties and lead the department forward with policing and jail initiatives. Knight was unchallenged for re-election in 2012 and 2016. Had he chosen, he could have returned for another four-year term.
In its realignment, Knight’s department was an early adopter of “intelligence-led policing,” a program that emphasizes strategic analysis to focus on hot spots and prolific offenders. Serious crime in Sarasota County has dropped by half over the past decade.
Among other initiatives:
• Early in the recession, Knight successfully pushed ordinances that made it tougher for thieves to sell stolen metals by requiring scrap metal yards to record sales and identify sellers. It worked. These model laws were later adopted throughout the state.
• The department also pushed an ordinance that made it more difficult to sell stolen jewelry at second-hand dealers.
• More important, given the growing opioid epidemic, Knight’s office developed ordinances that shut down freely operating “pill mills.” Again, Sarasota’s ordinance became a model that led to the demise of an outrageous, destructive retail industry.
• On another front, Knight worked to expand appropriate, compassionate services for the homeless, whose population exploded during the recession. He championed a plan to open a multi-purpose, service-oriented homeless shelter that would have been overseen by the Sheriff’s Office. When that didn’t fly, he moved onto smaller scaled alternatives. With county officials and community leaders, he later championed a policing/rehabilitative strategy that uses a specialized Sheriff’s Office team to help get homeless individuals social services and long-term housing.
• Knight also formed an addiction recovery program inside the county jail. Throughout his tenure, he has been a strong advocate of jail alternatives that focus on treatment services to deal with recidivism and slow the demand for more, expensive jail beds.
• Knight drew heat when he closed the South County jail/holding facility in Venice in a cost-saving measure and, earlier this year, the South County substation on State Road 776. There were nothing but kudos, however, for the new, consolidated headquarters was built off Cattlemen Road in Sarasota — outside of downtown Sarasota and more convenient to South County.
All said, for a political conservative, Knight has been remarkably progressive in his approach to law enforcement and jail operations.
Last week, Knight announced he would not seek re-election next year, setting the table for his close confidant and second-in-command, Col. Kurt Hoffman, to replace him. The same day Knight announced his retirement, Hoffman filed papers to run for sheriff. He’ll be the prohibitive favorite, with Knight’s endorsement and, no doubt, ample financing and solid community support.
Hoffman has been by Knight’s side for years now. But these will be big shoes to fill.