Citizen complaints at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office have plummeted over the last five years and that almost surely is no accident.
The reason behind the improving numbers merits the attention of citizens and other public agencies.
Complaints about Sheriff's Office personnel dropped from 437 in 2008 to 109 in 2012. Considering the agency has several hundred thousand calls for service each year, the number is impressive.
The likely reason? In 2007, Sheriff David Gee adopted the "Sheriff's Orientation Training" program, a mandatory two-week program that all new deputies must attend in addition to the basic law enforcement academy instruction.
This "boot camp," beyond the physical fitness training, emphasizes the importance of earning the public's trust. Chief Deputy Jose Docobo says, "It's intended to help establish the culture of the department and make clear what the sheriff's expects: discipline, courtesy and service to the community."
The department is serious about its motto "to serve and protect," and a clear message of the SOT program is rudeness won't be tolerated.
To ensure that it hires the right kind of people, the Sheriff's Office also toughened standards. College degrees are now required, with the exception of those who have served in the military. New deputies can't smoke or have any visible tatoos.
It is significant too that in 2007 the Sheriff's Office began requiring all new deputies, regardless of their experience, to undergo its complete training program, which includes the SOT, the academy and the department's post-academy orientation.
Previously, the agency would often hire individuals who were already certified for law enforcement work. Some had paid for the academy themselves; some had worked for other law enforcement agencies.
These individuals could go to work without retraining.
Gee and his staff decided all new deputies, regardless of prior training, should undergo the same preparation.
This increases the Sheriff's Office's costs - it spends about $35,375 for each new deputy's 31-week training period, including salary and benefits. But it also helps the agency determine the new recruits have the proper attitude and values before they hit the streets.
Docobo believes the effects of tougher training requirement are reflected in the decreasing complaints.
"We are much more focused on interpersonal skills in the training," he says. "We scrutinize backgrounds and really look at integrity issues. We go out and talk to their neighbors. That can be an indication of how they will treat the public. If they don't get along with their neighbors, that is not a good sign."
The focus on public courtesy hasn't weakened the department's crimefighting efforts.
Over the last five years county crime has dropped 52 percent - even as the cuts reduced the Sheriff's Office ratio of deputies to 1,000 residents from 1.6 to under 1.5.
"As proud as we are of our crimefighting strategies" Docobo says. "Sheriff Gee and our staff are probably even prouder of these citizen complaint numbers because they validate we are doing what we set out to do."
You often hear complaints about how difficult it is to change the culture of a public agency. But the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office experience underscores that, with commitment, it can be done - and in relatively short order.