Sheriff Al Nienhuis is looking forward to the creation of a new law enforcement training academy in Hernando County, as it may bring a more diverse roster of new deputies to his department.
“We want to mirror the people in the community in gender, ethnic background, in every way,” Nienhuis said. “The public are the police, and the police are the public.”
More and more, law-enforcement agencies across the U.S. are responding to recent concerns that they use strong-arm, forceful tactics sometimes called “hard skills” instead of “soft skills” needed by public servants. Nienhuis said the new training school will teach a balance in both areas, he has always believed in, so that residents will see his deputies as guardians of public safety and protection.
“The first (responsibility) is to maintain the safety of the county, which we take seriously. Just as important, however, is our second task of making our citizens feel safe,” he explained in a statement. “Unfortunately, we can see that throughout the country some law enforcement organizations, in their zeal to make their community safe, sometimes do not make their citizens feel safe. Elected sheriffs and their deputies, however, have become experts in balancing these two concerns.”
Nienhuis said by establishing an academy in this county, his agency of 641 employees may attract recruits from demographically diverse areas. He said this will help improve opportunities in the training region which are organized by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to also include Sumter, Citrus, Marion, and Levy counties: “That's why we need a new law enforcement academy.”
Until now, prospective Hernando deputies have been training at facilities in Dade City (vehicle training) or Inverness to prepare for their careers. The new academy will include a shooting range, classroom space for narcotics and other duties, a K-9 training area, and a five-acre pad for driving duties like making patrol stops.
There's a big demand for deputies ready to face the changing demands of a rapidly-growing place like Hernando County. Officials say they will need to train 150 deputies in the next five years to keep pace due to retirements, attrition, and new positions.
“More officers are injured in crashes than shootings,” Nienhuis said of the need for a driving pad. Deputies will no longer train for firearm safety on a gun range at the Boy Scout Ranch on Cortez Boulevard.
He also noted officers will have to deal with a growing problem with opioid drugs since there were as many overdoses in the county the first six months of this year as in all of 2020. “Drugs are a significant problem,” he said, “including heroin and fentanyl.”
Right now public officials are discussing the possibility of leasing some land from CEMEX Brooksville in a central Hernando location, with one county official noting the company “has a lot of open land that may be appropriate.” Until the new school opens up temporary classes will be offered at night at Nature Coast Technical High School. The classes are expected to begin in November. Some classes will also be offered through vocational programs conducted by Pasco-Hernando State College and the Suncoast Technical Education Center at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport.
Funding for the project may come from a combination of federal and state grants, surplus money from Hernando County, and forfeitures through the sheriff's office. Tuition for the classes, which are required by the state, costs between $3,500 to $3,700 for 770 hours of instruction. Financial aid is available through scholarships or the GI Bill for veterans.
Many of the candidates are young, 20-ish men and women, some of whom already work for the sheriff's office in some kind of support capacity. Some of them have served in the military and are used to the disciplined regimen a law enforcement career requires.
Dating back to 1995, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports violent crime topped out here in 2003 with 713 incidents, but it has remained below 300 offenses since 2011. The most current year studied shows there were 275 violent crimes in 2019 with six murders, 66 rapes, 53 robberies, and 393 aggravated assaults.
Besides better training, Nienhuis is also trying to keep up with technological innovations to improve his agency's capabilities. For instance, he said he prefers his deputies have cameras mounted on their vehicles to monitor their performance over cameras that are worn as part of the uniform because personal cameras sometimes get turned off when necessary.
“Most patrol vehicles are getting cameras. It's a good way of dealing with the issue,” he said. “I report directly to the citizens of Hernando County, all aspects. We're ready to take care of business.”
Nienhuis is not the only local official pushing for the academy. Hernando County School Board member Jimmy Lodato said it's another sign of progress here, and he said candidates for the academy can be recruited for the county's public schools.
“It's always good news when the educational opportunities in Hernando County grow,” he said.
Editor's Note: A correction was made on 9/9/21 to reflect that the start date of the Law Enforcement Academy classes at Nature Coast Technical High School was postponed until November. A correction was also issued for the number of HCSO employees.