BRADENTON, Fla. — At a gathering of local law enforcement leaders from across Manatee and Sarasota counties, Florida Congressman Vern Buchanan (R) said more needs to be done to address crime and threats to first responders.
Buchanan met with the law enforcement leaders to talk about the various dangers they face in the line of duty and to brainstorm what to do to keep neighborhoods and communities safe.
"To bring in all of the chiefs and majors from the area and have a roundtable to discuss some of the challenges is amazing," said Interim Chief Rex Troche, Sarasota Police Department.
"I am very encouraged because we did talk about so much and these are all such relevant issues," said Chief Melanie Bevan, City of Bradenton Police Department.
The group discussed different issues like on-the-job threats to law enforcement personnel, impediments to recruitment and retention efforts, and difficulty finding affordable housing.
However, two of the most concerning issues those in attendance raised were a rise in the number of juvenile offenders and growing illegal access to firearms.
"We just had an incident two days ago. Two young folks with a gun, who clearly didn't even know how to operate it. He shot himself and the bullet went through him and shot the driver and his passenger and a car. Two people, critically injured, playing around with a gun who shouldn't have had a gun in the first place. That's scary," Bevan said.
Bevan said this has become a big problem throughout the region. Calling it a proliferation of firearms, Bevan said the large number of stolen guns they are finding on criminals were obtained without much effort.
While she said many of the crimes are also being committed by repeat juvenile offenders, she and the other law enforcement leaders put some of the blame on careless legal gun owners who were not securing their firearms properly. They said when these guns find their way onto the streets they can also be deadly to law enforcement officers.
In 2021, according to the National Fraternal Order of Police, of the 346 police officers who were shot while on the job, 73 were killed.
"These are heartbreaking stories that you see. These are young officers beginning with a career or older officers, days away from retirement. It doesn't really matter their story, I take each one of those personally, very personally," Bevan said.
"If you look and see the catastrophic nature of law enforcement being gunned down and perishing in the line of duty, I would have to wear this badge every day if we did that as a nation. As it is we wear it when we lose an officer in the state of Florida and all too often I have to send out a memo to my folks and put this badge on. I have been in law enforcement. I am in my 35th year and it has never been like this. It is heartbreaking," she added.
U.S. Congressman Vern Buchanan convened the meeting to hear these concerns in person.
"If you don't have sheriff and police, you don't have a community. Maybe I am wrong but this is how I view it," said Buchanan.
Buchanan has been pushing for the "Thin Blue Line Act." The bill would implement tougher punishments for anyone who targets or attacks police or first responders. The bill is undergoing the legislative process and facing hurdles along the way. Florida's Attorney General Ashley Moody, as well as the National Association of Police Organizations, have endorsed the bill.
"It'll make it a lot more aggressive. If you kill a police officer or sheriff, it is a good chance that you're going to get the death penalty. That's what this is going to do," Buchanan said.
Leaders also noted challenges in recruitment due to the cost of rent in the area which has jumped nearly 40-percent. They also brought up the issue of being under-resourced in some of the smaller departments where personnel are unable to be assigned their own individual patrol units.
For example, in Longboat Key, some officers are finding themselves incurring personal costs in time and gas for commuting to and from work to access their patrol units. Longboat Key's police chief said depending on the time of the day and destination, that commute can take some of them almost two hours.
One solution raised was to discuss with housing developers about factoring in some units specifically for first responders and essential workers.
A common practice observed among some apartment community leasing managers is to offer a reduced fraction of rent to law enforcement as a courtesy but that practice varies and isn't guaranteed.
The leaders in attendance said they would remain tough on criminals but also made a direct plea to the community about how they can help make the community safer with their own actions.
"Lock your car doors or take your gun out of your car. There is no reason you need to leave a firearm in your vehicle at night, it's irresponsible," Bevan said.