OUR POSITION: Tom Knight leaves behind a legacy of tough, peaceful, open-minded enforcement of the law.
Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight, who is retiring in January, believes strongly in his responsibility to protect and serve.
But in discussing crime once with the media, he gave a lasting example of his thought process when it came to law enforcement. He said if he was out for a jog, he would not be inclined to arrest a young person he might encounter smoking a joint. He would prefer to offer advice on putting it out. Maybe identify himself. And move on.
Tom Knight, who served 12 years as sheriff, was never about racking up arrests. He took no pride in seeing his aging jail full.
As a matter of fact, he worked as hard as anyone we know to keep people out of jail. His policies and programs to rehabilitate drug addicts and to find help for the homeless — policies more recently embraced by Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Prummell — were groundbreaking.
It’s his compassion for people with issues — people who are not hardened criminals or imminent threats to do harm — that probably helped him get re-elected twice without opposition. As his departure nears, he was recognized recently by a coronavirus-inspired parade of cars outside his office — a show of appreciation from the community he served.
Knight, always humble, teared up at a Sarasota County Commission meeting earlier in the day when it was declared Sheriff Thomas M. Knight Day.
His staff and family surprised him with balloons and doughnuts at his headquarters just before the parade of well-wishers began. He walked to the curb to greet each of them through their car window.
Knight will leave some big shoes for his trusted Chief Deputy and Sheriff-elect Kurt Hoffman, to fill when he steps in Jan. 5.
After graduating from Venice High in 1981 and attending Florida State University, Knight started with the Sarasota Police Department before leaving for a 20-year stint with the Florida Highway Patrol. He was first elected sheriff in 2008 — the only time he faced an opponent.
His decision to not seek a fourth term was all about family he said.
Knight praised his team at the sheriff’s office — calling himself only a “figurehead.” He said the energy it took to do the job right might be too much to give for another four years without taking too much time away from his family.
Over the course of his three terms Knight instituted 52 programs at the jail. He always said the reduction in jail population was his greatest achievement. Right now, the jail, which holds 984 inmates, has a population of about 800.
He created an addiction recovery pod for inmates. He worked with local organizations to get help for those who had addictions or mental illness. He tried to work with the county to alleviate the homeless problems that have grown over the years.
Knight always looked for answers to problems — using a philosophy that just putting someone in jail is not always the best approach.
We found Knight to always be accessible. He answered the phone. He called back. He readily gave his opinions.
Tom Knight left the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office in good shape. And he spared a lot of people a criminal record and time in jail that could have caused a loss of employment and a string of problems that can derail a life.
We wish him well in his retirement.