Photo by Barbara Banks
Sheriff Tom Knight, the 10th Sheriff of Sarasota County, announced today he will not be seeking election to another term in office. His current term ends in January of 2021.
Knight was elected sheriff in 2008 and sworn into office in January 2009. He immediately began transforming the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office into a model of progressive law enforcement. During his first 100 days in office, Knight convened subject-matter experts as well as internal and external stakeholders to produce the agency’s first strategic plan that would tackle the most difficult issues of the time, including rising crime rates and decreasing resources during the economic crisis.
Knight’s plan included a major shift in crime fighting philosophy to incorporate community-based policing models of the 80s and 90s as well as intelligence-led policing, or ILP, which focuses strongly on prolific offenders. Under Knight’s leadership, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office became one of the first agencies in the nation to adopt the ILP model. Those efforts, along with several other strategies and programs initiated by Knight, have led to a nearly 52% crime rate reduction in Part 1 Offenses throughout Sarasota County since 2009.
Sheriff Knight’s hallmark is the ability and willingness to look differently at problems and develop unconventional solutions. For example, in his persistent efforts to reduce the population of the chronically overcrowded Sarasota County jail, he was one of the first sheriffs in Florida to enter the Secure Communities program with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Obama administration, which allowed for the identification and removal of criminal illegal aliens from the jail.
Recognizing that a significant percentage of repeat jail inmates are in custody primarily because of drug and mental health problems, in 2009 Sheriff Knight and command staff convened with the local faith community and Salvation Army to create the first jail-based addiction recovery pods in the Southeast United States. Recently featured on a Fox News report with Geraldo Rivera, the program has been so successful that it has led to the development of additional specialty pods for inmate veterans and those suffering from mental health issues. Corrections personnel continue to work with outside agencies and service providers to help inmates successfully re-enter the community, thus reducing recidivism.
Knight is also credited with reducing metal thefts and all but wiping out local opioid “pill mills” by collaborating with county commissioners to pass specific ordinances to disrupt businesses that created vital links within criminal ecosystems. The pill mill ordinance became a model for the state of Florida and inspired the passing of similar legislation in 2018 which gave the Drug Enforcement Administration authority to reduce manufacturing quotas for controlled substances.
Recognizing the national shift in perception of law enforcement, Knight took several steps to increase communication and understanding among the sheriff’s office and the community it serves. In addition to operating the Citizen’s Law Enforcement Academy, Knight also launched citizen advisory boards in north and south Sarasota County, and assembled a group of leaders within the faith community to help strengthen the relationship between the agency and north Sarasota County neighborhoods. He also launched the agency’s “Rightful Policing Strategy” program, aimed at building trust, understanding and mutual respect among law enforcement and Sarasota County teens.
“Today’s youth may be the key to improving the relationship between law enforcement officers and their communities, and keeping the peace in critical situations,” commented Sheriff Knight. “If we miss that opportunity to connect, it could be lost for years to come.”
Knight is also proud of changes made internally within the agency since his taking office in 2009. Under his leadership, Knight has challenged the status quo of a traditionally male-dominated workforce to ensure equal opportunity for advancement and the promotion of female supervisors. He implemented several significant policy changes and created an attractive recruitment process that has helped with retention, making the sheriff’s office one of the most highly competitive agencies in the state of Florida. Thanks to advanced training, equipment and compensation, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office has not suffered from employee attrition like many other law enforcement agencies throughout the state and across the country.
A native of Pennsylvania, Knight is the son of a WWII purple heart recipient and a mother who worked in the Sarasota County school system. He spent most of his childhood in Venice and began his career in law enforcement with the Sarasota Police Department in 1987. Less than two years later he joined the Florida Highway Patrol and spent the next 20 years with the agency, serving in five troops from Miami to Tallahassee while working his way to the position of major. After winning a contentious primary election and general election in 2008, he was elected to two more terms as sheriff with no opposition. He and his wife Tracy have two grown daughters, Emily and Elizabeth.