Pinellas Sheriff’s Office amends search warrant policy

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri held a press conference Sept. 1 to announce changes in policy for how deputies serve search warrants.

At a time when police protocols are being questioned and challenged throughout the nation, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri held a press conference the morning of Sept. 1 to announce a change in how the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office serves search warrants.

The policy change specifically addressed the tactic of serving no-knock, dynamic-entry search warrants. These incidents involve law enforcement providing no warning to suspects before entering a location, often forcefully.

The tactic has received more attention nationally since March when police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, forcibly entered the apartment of Breonna Taylor, resulting in the shooting death of Taylor and the shooting of one of the officers.

“We recognize that we live in evolving times, with changing circumstances and certainly with changing community expectations,” Gualtieri said. “We have and we will continue to evaluate how we police toward achieving everyone’s common goal of maintaining a community that has as little crime as possible.”

Gualtieri provided details of how the agency’s approach to serving search warrants will be affected.

“The preservation of life and the mitigation of harm to (law enforcement), occupants of the location where the warrant is to be served and the public in general are paramount considerations when deciding how to serve a search warrant,” he said.

Deputies are now required to “mitigate the potential for harm by not serving dynamic entry search warrants unless authorized by a division commander or higher authority within the sheriff’s office,” Gualtieri explained.

For no-knock entries to be made while serving a search warrant in Florida, by any department, “there has to be the articulated circumstance at the time the cops are serving the warrant,” Gualtieri said. Judges in Florida cannot give permission ahead of time to serve a warrant without knocking, he said.

In the last six years, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Division has served 81 search warrants, Gualtieri said, and 75 involved soft-entry incidents. The other six, or 7 percent of the total, involved dynamic-entry tactics which occurred “after exhaustion of alternative methods,” he said.

“This is very different from the way it used to be when about 100 percent of our warrants were dynamic-entry,” Gualtieri said. “Going back 10-15 years ago or more, we had our own incidents where people were shot inside homes when we served these dynamic-entry search warrants. The risk to harm to deputies and suspects was significant.”

To work to further limit dynamic-entry scenarios, deputies are required to conduct surveillance of the location to determine who lives there, how often people come and go, if anyone not related to the crime lives there or if there are any elderly, special needs residents or children living there.

“Unless there’s a compelling reason to the contrary, deputies are prohibited from conducting a dynamic entry and are required to wait for the suspect to leave the location where they may be detained or arrested off-site,” Gualtieri said. “The goal is to serve search warrants on empty locations as that is the safest for deputies and suspects.”

Gualtieri said that while there’s no way to guarantee future incidents won’t escalate and turn dangerous, the Sheriff’s Office is continuing to evolve its policing practices.

“I’m not saying what happened in the Taylor case, a dynamic-entry shootout, can’t happen here, but what I can say is that the chances are very minimal under our policy,” he said. “Every possible step is being taken to ensure that it does not occur when there are viable and safe alternatives available.

“We want to make sure that what we do is worth it and that we value life more than anything else.”