Home field advantage

As community populations increase, agencies find creative ways to stretch budgets without compromising safety and security on the homefront

     During the past five years, the population in St. Lucie County, Florida increased by 25 percent. This recent surge has prompted law enforcement officials to revisit the complexities of homeland security issues by adopting a "hometown security" concept to combine emerging technology with state-of-the-art training for a safer and more secure community.

     St. Lucie County, including the cities of Port St. Lucie and Fort Pierce, is aptly named Treasure Coast for the tons of gold and silver strewn in the Atlantic coastal waters by shipwrecked Spanish fleets centuries ago.

     Today, local law enforcement officials are focusing on the potential threat of hurricanes and security threats to St. Lucie County's small geographic area.

     Points of interest include nuclear reactors; a deepwater port; small international airport; high volume rail freight line; a chemical and food processing plant; baseball stadium; two main highways; college campuses; miles of shoreline along the ocean; the Indian River; and two ocean inlets.

     In the age of heightened security, it is important that individual law enforcement agencies adjust security measures to fit their growing needs. Currently, 240,000 people inhabit St. Lucie County; with the next wave of retiring baby boomers, the increase in population is expected to climb even more.

     Realizing the need for highly trained public safety personnel, the Indian River Community College academy will complete the construction of its state-of-the-art training center in Fort Pierce in 2008 with the capability to train 3,600 police, fire and EMT personnel each year.

     In order to meet the challenge of providing protective services to an increased population, law enforcement has embraced technology and resource-sharing to efficiently reduce the crime rate and maintain hometown security. Although the financial focus for homeland security is on large, high-target metropolitan areas, the resources to enhance technology have all but dried up.

Bridging the gap with technology

     As a resident of Treasure Coast for more than 30 years, Fort Pierce Police Chief Sean Baldwin has witnessed many changes and is concerned about the decrease in grant money available for his agency. Although cities nationwide reported dramatic decreases in violent crime from 2000 to 2005, a slight increase during 2006 is a less than desirable trend for Baldwin.

     "We're making progress decreasing our violent crime rate. Although we've cut it nearly in half, it's still too high and any increase is unacceptable," Baldwin says. "Homeland security starts with hometown security," he continues. "That means knowing our community, its strengths and challenges and using available funding to fight crime."

     Baldwin says it can be tricky to work with reduced budgets, and estimates a decrease in grant funds from $300,000 in 2001 to less than $50,000 in 2007. "For us here in Fort Pierce, the challenge becomes daunting."

     Baldwin is also concerned about the influx of gangs in the South Florida area and is taking steps within his agency to get a handle on the situation in Fort Pierce.

     "We are constantly monitoring intelligence from local sources which include school resource officers (SROs) and criminal databases," Baldwin says.

     "We coordinate with the Port St. Lucie Police Department and the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office to share information about potential problems, but we need to increase available funding for technology and intelligence sharing."

     Baldwin says in the past, they received $300,000 in grant funding to increase technology in police cruisers, including the installation of onboard computers. After September 11, 2001, all 115 police officers in the city received personal protection gear which cost about $100 each, also from a federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant.

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