By Sofia Santana
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
April 12, 2009
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement no longer can afford to regularly help local police agencies with major gang and drug investigations, and drastic funding cuts now being proposed cast a dark shadow on its future.
For South Florida police departments, the FDLE's cost-cutting has meant backlogs in the state's criminal records systems, possible delays in the disbursement of grant money it administers, and a reduction in the backup and guidance the state's top law enforcement agency can offer on complex cases.
More reductions would threaten the FDLE's identity as an agency that, for the last decade or so, has geared itself to specialized fields, such as criminal profiling, public corruption, cold cases and the creation of vast online databases. Those databases include a public list of all sex offenders registered statewide at www.fdle.state.fl.us.
All of those functions — and hundreds of jobs — could be trimmed under proposals included in the state's 2009-10 budget.
"The impact of these cuts can carry into the long term," said FDLE Assistant Commissioner Ken Tucker, who listed among his primary concerns the investment the agency must make in training its employees, including special agents and crime lab technicians.
"These are resources that take two to three years to become fully productive," Tucker said.
For the current fiscal year, which will end in June, the FDLE shaved $6 million from its budget of about $340 million, as well as cut 96 positions and overtime benefits to some senior staffers.
Budget proposals for the next fiscal year being debated in the Legislature could pare an additional 10 to 15 percent from the agency's budget and lead to the closing of almost all FDLE field offices, including those in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.
The agency also is considering eliminating 33 positions assigned to monitor gambling at Florida's racetrack casinos, including three in Broward County and one in Palm Beach County. Should those jobs be cut, the FDLE wouldn't have enough agents to maintain a constant presence at the facilities, Tucker said.
Potential changes in the state agency, which has about 1,900 employees, would affect South Florida police departments' operations.
Some departments already foresee having to juggle resources.
"You have to find out ways to redistribute your funds," said Fort Lauderdale police Sgt. Frank Sousa. The ultimate goal, Sousa said, is to make sure criminal investigations are unaffected.
Any changes at the FDLE are likely to cut much more deeply into law enforcement operations in other parts of the state, however. In South Florida, many local police agencies are equipped to handle high-profile investigations on their own and have access to local private crime labs.
Sheriff's offices in Broward and Palm Beach counties run their own labs, as does their counterpart to the south, Miami-Dade Police.
"We are really not dependent on FDLE for anything," said Broward Sheriff's spokesman Jim Leljedal.
Staff Writer Megan O'Matz contributed to this report.
Sofia Santana can be reached at svsantana@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4631.