Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri clashed with his opponent, Eliseo Santana, on issues like racial diversity, community policing, and the use of “brute force” Thursday night during a virtual candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of St. Petersburg.

Gualtieri, a Republican, has led the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PSCO) since 2011. In his tenure, he’s become a state and national leader, including being named the sheriff of the year by the National Sheriffs Association in 2019. He’s also the legislative chair of the Florida Sheriffs Association and heads the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission that has produced two major reports since it was created following the 2018 tragedy in Parkland.

Santana is a Democrat who worked as a communications maintenance supervisor for 30 years in the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, but he does not have any direct law enforcement experience – and says he doesn’t need it to lead the department.

“We do not need a career law enforcement officer to be in charge of the agency,” Santana said during his closing remarks at the forum. “What we need is somebody that is able to have the heart and want to be of service and be able to truly address the issues that are of concern to our community.”

In Thursday night’s forum, Gualtieri pushed back several times from criticism that Santana delivered about the status of the PCSO.

The first time was when Santana discussed that, if he were in charge, he would look at bringing in deputies with different racial and educational backgrounds. He said he would value officers who have the “ability to communicate and to have the value of being able to make our community safe, and not necessarily use brute force or militarism…to be able to bring in that collective for community policing.”

“Law enforcement officers don’t use brute force,” Gualtieri responded succinctly. “Law enforcement officers respond to resistance that is used against them.”

The sheriff went on to say that his agency has used “force” in only 400 of the 500,000 calls for service in 2019, or less than one percent in all interactions with the public.

Santana is the founder and president of a local nonprofit called Puerto Rico Connect and has spoken frequently on the (mostly virtual) campaign trail about the need for the PCSO to have more racial diversity, especially in its top ranks.

Without addressing that specific criticism about diversity in leadership positions, Gualtieri asserted that the racial demographics between the agency and the county are virtually dead-on. He said that Pinellas County is 79 percent white and 11 percent Black, while his agency’s racial breakdown is 78 percent white and 12 percent Black (the most recent U.S. Census numbers show the white population in the county to actually be 74 percent white, 11 percent Black and 10 percent Hispanic).

Santana says, if elected, he will emphasize community policing.

“We need to radically change the way we do law enforcement,” he said. “Instead of being reactive when you’re called to go in and try to resolve the situation and arrest someone and take them to jail, we need to be able to have somebody there who knows the community, who understands the issues and is able to deal with that as a preventative rather than a reactive type of situation.”

Gualtieri responded that his agency has had a “robust” community policing unit in place for years involved in various programs and services.

“We have great relationships with the community because of community policing,” he said. 

The sheriff said that, due to COVID-19, his agency has been proactive in dealing with the health crisis. He said that there were approximately 3,200 inmates in the county jail in March, but the jail population has since been reduced by more than 1,100 inmates since the pandemic was recognized as a public health threat.

On “Defunding the Police,” there was really little conflict between the candidates. Gualtieri said that his agency has had its own dedicated mental health unit working with deputies on specific calls. Santana said it was important to be able to allocate funds to address mental health issues to get in front of bad outcomes.

In their respective closing remarks, Gualtieri highlighted the 49 percent reduction of crime in the county since he took office in 2011.

Santana countered by saying all is not right with the department, telling viewers to look up a Tampa Bay Times story that reported that the sheriff’s office had improperly categorized some rape cases as being successfully cleared.