Crash response time grows after officer layoffs

Jacksonville Sheriff's Office cutbacks leaves FHP responding to more crashes

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Being involved in a crash is stressful enough, but having to wait nearly two hours for a police officer to respond can make the experience even more frustrated.  And, in some cases, frightening.

Since the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office slashed its budget last year -- eliminating 92 community service officer positions and 74 vacant police officer positions -- the Florida Highway Patrol has had to pick up the slack -- responding to many more crashes on state roads throughout Duval County.

It's a jurisdictional dance that left John Higbee stranded on Atlantic Boulevard for almost two hours after being rear-ended a few months ago.

"About 30 minutes later I called 911 back and said we're still here and nobody has come," said Higbee.

The JSO officer who escorted Hibgee and the other driver involved to a safe parking lot left them to wait for a state trooper to come write an accident report.

The FHP says it's all part of a new reality in response times.


"On a day shift, if it's not raining, it's probably 25-30, sometimes they'll go an hour," said FHP Capt. Keith Gaston. "On the afternoon shift where we have more crashes than we do on the day shift, then it's closer to an hour, and will go up to two hours."

Sheriff John Rutherford says he had no choice but to shift some of those enforcement duties back to FHP.

"I know they're struggling for resources as well," said Rutherford. "My problem is, I do not want to pull resources out of neighborhoods where I'm trying to fight violent crime to go work traffic crashes on state roads which is their responsibility," he continued.

Channel 4 pressed Gaston on how many troopers he realistically needs to cover the additional workload.

"Twenty per shift," Gaston replied. "We need to triple the number of personnel that we have assigned to Duval county to realistically handle the workload."

In 2011, FHP responded to more than 1,700 crashes between July 1 and  December 31.

In 2012 the figures jump to 5,000 crashes during that same time period. That's a jump of more than 3,200 crashes with no additional staff.

Sheriff Rutherford says his agency is still covering about 70 percent of state roads in Duval County.

State roads that fall under zone 2, 3, and 4 are now enforced by FHP. Some of the major roads in those zones include San Jose Boulevard, Philips Highway, J. Turner Butler Boulevard, and University, Atlantic and Southside boulevards.

Traffic enforcement on state roads in zones 1, 5 and 6 are still covered by JSO. The major roads there include Martin Luther King Pkwy, Interstate 295 in Northwest Jacksonville and Lem Turner Road.

On a typical day, FHP has 21 officers patrolling Duval County, spread throughout seven shifts. JSO estimates it has 350 officers per day, divided between six different shifts. It's a difference of nearly 60 officers per day, that Capt. Gaston says he is actively trying to change.

Both agencies agree the community deserves better -- and will continue to fight for more resources.

"They need to let those folks know what the impact of these cuts are," said Rutherford. "Until they hear from the people, it's not going to be a priority."

Mayor Alvin Brown released this statement:
"The Sheriff's Office and Florida Highway Patrol are empowered as independent agencies to make the best decisions for citizens. We respect their independent authority to decide how to manage their resources and protect the public."

Florida Sen. Audrey Gibson, who sits on the Transportation Economic Developmental Appropriations Committee, was shocked to learn about the long response times.

"The division of highway safety budget is contained within that committee and when they made their budget request, there was no request for any additional officers, so no one has contacted me about it," said Gibson. "I'm not trying to minimize anybody's discomfort, but I think we have to make sure that we general public safety first in terms of what's going on in the community and what officers are responding to," she continued.

Gibson says she's committed to finding a solution everyone can be satisfied with.

"No one has to put pressure on me to do the right thing," Gibson said. "So, if there's a conversation to be had, I welcome JSO and I welcome anyone from FHP to come and talk to me."

But the problems go beyond politics, according to State Farm Insurance agent Matt Carlucci.

"If there is an uninsured motorist at the scene, sometimes they're a little evasive and sometimes they're maybe apt to leave the scene of an accident," Carlucci said. "So a quick response might mitigate that problem."

According to Carlucci, about 50 percent of drivers on the road today are uninsured or have limited car insurance. If they take off, he says the policy holder ends up bearing the brunt of the responsibility, and can streamline the process of filing a claim.

"It helps the insurance company sort through who was at fault, and it allows the sheriff's office or FHP to find any witnesses there that can kind of attest to what happened," Carlucci said.

Channel 4 Crime and Safety Analyst Ken Jefferson says you don't have to have a police report to file a claim, but you should have your driver's license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance ready to exchange with the other driver in a crash.

"If you're on the interstate and traffic is flowing, traffic is moving, and people sometimes aren't as nice on the interstate because they're trying to get where they are going, put on your emergency flashers and go to the next exit, or the next available emergency lane area where you can pull off safely, exchange information and then be on your way," said Jefferson.

Carlucci says taking pictures of any damage can be important evidence for your insurance agent.

"A picture can be worth a thousand words. For any type of insurance claim, whether it's at the home or out on the road, so that's a good idea, " Carlucci explained.

Officials with FHP and JSO say they will continue to communicate on a regular basis, and don't have any official plans to make any adjustments to the zones or responsibilities beyond what they've already implemented.

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