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Sheriff Knight named new CEO at First Step of Sarasota
The Herald-Tribune - 11/17/2020
Nov. 17--SARASOTA -- Even as a 23-year-old rookie with the Sarasota Police Department getting a street-level view of the burgeoning crack cocaine epidemic, at least one thing became immediately obvious to Tom Knight: locking up the buyers wasn't going to solve anything.
"You're not going to arrest your way out of addiction; you're just filling up our jails with people who may have done nothing more wrong in life than getting addicted," recalled Sarasota County's top law enforcement official.
"Maybe they don't have the right parents or loved ones around to get them help. Maybe they don't have the money or the influence. But when they do get out, they'll go right back and do it again."
Thirty-three years later, the observational lessons Knight applied to the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office after getting elected in 2008 have resulted in dramatically fewer arrests, a commensurate reduction in crime, and a proliferation of inmate social-services options that have depressed recidivism rates. As a consequence, Sarasota County's largest nonprofit behavioral health care agency is making a bold leadership move.
First Step of Sarasota, which sponsors four residential programs with 276 licensed beds reserved for those with mental health and addiction issues, has named Knight its new CEO, effective January 25, 2021. By then, with coronavirus rates spiking, demand for FSoS services may be even more urgent, says the agency's interim CEO Gwen MacKenzie.
"COVID-19 could certainly be an exacerbating factor for people who are already under stress for mental illness and substance abuse," said MacKenzie, former CEO for Sarasota Memorial Hospital. "The rates of opioid overdose and suicide in this area are all up. The next pandemic could be mental illness and substance abuse, and we are all concerned.
"Tom has a legacy as a great leader, and that's why we're excited. He's very innovative and progressive, and he's been getting great results."
After running unopposed for the second and third of his four-year terms, the Sarasota Republican could likely have held onto his job for as long as he wanted. Or he could have been a frontrunner for whatever other local political office that appealed to his experience.
But after starting 54 recovery and mental health programs from scratch at the jail, Knight said he decided he and his wife, Tracy, needed a new direction.
"I've worked with First Step in the past, and they've been great partners with our jail operations in working to divert people from the courts and jails into rehabilitation programs," Knight said. "And our belief is that we can make more of a positive impact this way than getting caught up in the politics of trying to make policy.
"You only get one shot in life. Politics is like a cage fight now -- there's really no happy medium in politics anymore. My wife and I feel like this is a better opportunity to serve our community."
Presiding over 1,000 employees and a budget of $120 million, the 1981 Venice High School graduate and Florida State University criminology major has immersed himself in the Sarasota community at multiple levels.
Knight, a board member with the SKY Family YMCA, the Barancik Foundation and a mentor with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Suncoast, joined the Sarasota Police Department before beginning a 10-year career with the Florida Highway Patrol that concluded when he ran for sheriff in 2008. He went on to earn citations from the likes of the Rotary Club, the Salvation Army, the Florida Guardian Ad Litem program, First Step and the Florida Association of Counties.
In April 2019, Knight's social services programs in the jail drew national attention from Fox News when Geraldo Rivera produced a series "Addicted in America." Rivera reported how the "innovative" programs reduced the recidivism rate of 46% to 13% among men and 6% among women. There were other stats, too, indicating that technology-driven law enforcement produced a 50% drop in crime, the largest decline in any Florida county with a population above 100,000 residents.
"With 'defund the police,' I think what people are really saying is, they want police tactics changed," Knight said. "They don't want search warrants on drug dealers done at nighttime in an apartment complex in Louisville, Kentucky. We quit doing that years ago.
"You serve search warrants on nonviolent offenders dealing drugs at 9 in the morning, when it's daylight, outside a gas station or a 7-Eleven. You don't go in with blazing in the middle of the night; that's 1980s style. I've had other sheriffs call and say, 'Hey, this isn't what sheriffs do, we're tough on crime.' And I said, 'I know my community. You can be tough on crime and compassionate, too.'"
As soon as he took office in 2009, Knight said he was approached by groups like the Salvation Army, wanting to start antirecidivism programs in lockup. Knight said he'd take all the help he could get. "And I started looking at jail as a point of intervention," he said. "If you'd told me 30 years ago we'd be doing that, I would've said you're crazy."
Court-ordered recovery programs for drug offenders were one thing. But the "recovery pods" Knight instituted were a unique form of motivation because they were voluntary. One of the prime examples was Dave Pruitt, who has since started his own window installation business, A Window of Opportunity.
"It took me awhile," said Pruitt. "But it was all about the power of choice. It's a cleaner portion of the cell, there were better perks over there, and they really get to the core issues of why you drank and drugged in the first place."
When FSoS began interviewing Knight for the job, they asked for references. Knight asked Pruitt for help.
"That was an honor for me," Pruitt said. "Tom and I stay in touch. I can call him and talk to him about anything. And that's why I think he's going to be perfect for the job -- he's a get 'er done kinda guy."
Knight said his initiatives at the jail actually represented a failure of the larger social safety net.
"The issue has been so neglected, the only way people would deal with these (mental health and addiction) issues would be to dial 911. But 911 shouldn't be for mental health. You saw what happened with the shooting in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago:
"A guy's got a knife and his mother calls 911 for help, but you know what? You're calling a guy who drives a police car, wears a bulletproof vest and carries a gun. He may have 40 hours of crisis intervention training, but guess what? He's not a clinician. When you've got a guy with a knife and you call 911, only bad things are going to happen."
Knight's solution: For starters, identify the top 20 repeat offenders and develop proactive programs with the families before events begin to cascade. His staff now counts three caseworkers and two deputies who deal exclusively with homelessness, to defuse issues before they become crises.
Having worked professionally with civilians from 911 operators to animal control, Knight anticipates few transitional issues with staff. Neither police officers nor social services personnel, he said, are in it for the money.
"When I went to the Sheriff's Office on January 6, 2009, I was petrified," he said. "I'm scared now, but I think anxiety is good for someone who needs to be pushed toward success. It keeps you on your game. And working for people who are trying to make people better is a perfect fit."
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