LARGO – Largo’s Code Enforcement Division has been renamed the Community Standards Division.
The new name, which drops the word “enforcement,” is designed to reflect collaboration with property owners rather than confrontation and fines for noncompliance.
“Enforcement is the last part of our process,” Code enforcement manager Tracey Schofield told the City Commission during its Nov. 13 work session. “Because of our position in the city, code enforcement ends up being the hammer, and that’s not a position we’re always fond of.”
City Manager Henry Schubert approved the change Nov. 26.
In addition to the name change, Schofield hopes dispute-resolution training, new uniforms and social media tools will prevent contentious interaction between the city and property owners.
“It can be a very dangerous job for code enforcement officers,” Schofield told city commissioners. “There are people who aren’t happy a lot of times when code enforcement shows up at their door.”
Schofield, who served with the Pinellas Park Police Department for more than 24 years, often accompanied code enforcement agents on calls in that city. The sergeant was called upon to de-escalate tensions with homeowners during touchy situations.
“I saw officers verbally abused,” Schofield told the Leader. He also pointed to the slaying of a female Utah code enforcement officer in August, allegedly by a West Valley City homeowner she had cited.
Largo has not seen such violence against its code officers, but they have been confronted by upset homeowners. Schofield believes reaching an understanding works best.
“Absolutely, you have to learn from those lessons,” Schofield said. “Instead of a code enforcement officer reaching for the phone to call the police for help, why not reach out to shake the (resident’s) hand?”
Schofield said agents of the division, which was formally created just over a year ago, are still learning. Two officers have fewer than two years on the job, one has fewer than three years as an officer and one has been in the position for five years. Schofield’s veteran officer, who supervises the others, has 20 years of experience.
Out of 2,357 cases opened last year, 194 of the cases went to the Code Enforcement Board and Special Magistrate for non-compliance, Schofield told the commissioners. That means 92 percent of the residents complied with code enforcement’s requests within seven days, Schofield said.
Not all Largo homeowners are so willing to comply, however.
“We deal with the same people, unfortunately, that law enforcement deals with,” Schofield said. “The same problem houses, the same people with mental illnesses, but we don’t have Tasers and we don’t have guns. We have to deal with it through conflict resolution.”
He and his agents attend Florida Association of Code Enforcement training, though he plans to add crisis intervention training and verbal judo, which teaches officers how to de-escalate angry confrontations, Schofield said.
Largo code enforcement officers are trained to spot elderly or disabled homeowners who lack money or resources to keep their lawns and homes in shape, Schofield said. They refer such residents to local agencies and nonprofits that can help them, such as church volunteers who come by once a week to mow their lawns.
“We certainly work really hard to get our citizens and business owners to come into compliance,” he said. “If there’s a problem, we try to give them support on an ongoing basis.”
The city’s communications and marketing department helped Schofield research a new uniform that is more casual in tone. The new name will be stitched on the shirts.
“Our code enforcement officers now wear blue, and blue is a law enforcement color,” Schofield said. “The marketing department formed a focus group and asked for options. We want to get to a gray or green shirt; those are the two colors we’re considering. “
Finally, code enforcement plans to use email, texting and other social media platforms to push messages out to homeowners and businesses, Schofield said.
“We can text residents and business owners, for instance, telling them about violations to avoid,” he said. “For instance, if residents want to buy windows for their homes, we can text tips on which windows match city code. That helps them avoid code violations and save them time.”
Schofield still believes talking is the best way to maintain good communication between code enforcement officers and citizens.
“Driving around neighborhoods, spotting lawns that need mowing and mailing in a violation for tall grass doesn’t build relationships,” Schofield said. “You have to leave the car and knock on the door.”
The new uniforms and social media platforms will be phased in in the coming weeks, Schofield said.