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Date of Issue: August 09, 2007

Sheriff talks of crime, community in town hall forum

Holmes Beach Commissioner Pat Geyer, left, and Mayor Rich Bohnenberger, right, welcome Manatee County Sheriff W. Brad Steube to a town hall forum Aug. 2 at Holmes Beach City Hall. Islander Photos: Lisa Neff

Manatee County Sheriff W. Brad Steube talked with Islanders about crime and community, patrols and punishment during a town hall meeting Aug. 2.

The forum took place at Holmes Beach City Hall, following a welcome by Holmes Beach Mayor Rich Bohnenberger.

A number of local elected officials attended, as well as Holmes Beach Police Chief Jay Romine and Lt. Dale Stephenson.

The forum began with Steube, humorously and humbly, introducing himself - the new sheriff - to the crowd.

Steube replaced Charlie Wells, who retired on April 2 after holding the office for 22 years. Wells recommended his then-chief deputy and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Steube to the post.

“I am pleased, quite honored and very humbled, to be the sheriff,” Steube said last week, just hours after he had announced to the media that his investigators had arrested Thomas Fast for the murder of his stepmother, Susan Fast.

In Steube’s few months as sheriff, he has overseen a major effort to take gang members off the streets and reduce the number of violent crimes, sweeps to pull in drug offenders and the investigation into the Fast disappearance and homicide.

When he began his law enforcement career in the 1970s, he was looking for fulfillment.

Steube grew up in Manatee County, moving here at the age of 7, attending Bayshore Elementary School and Manatee High School.

After graduation, he tested himself in construction, but soon turned to law enforcement. He recalled for his Holmes Beach audience applying for the academy in the 1970s - when he was still very young and not only had lots of hair, but had very long hair.

Steube asked for an application and the desk officer called to the back for his supervisor to bring one.

“Does he meet the height requirement?” the supervisor called back.

“Oh yeah, he’s tall enough, but you’ve got to come see this,” the desk officer replied.

Eventually Steube graduated from the academy. He went to work for the Longboat Key Police Department for two years and two months, a quiet period that seemed too long for a young cop wanting to fight crime.

Steube found the crime-fighting work he sought when he went to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office - as an undercover officer making drug busts and a prominent member of the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit.

Steube’s message for his audience last week was that the sheriff’s office exists, as the police motto goes, to serve and to protect.

“We have a number of good, hardworking people whose desire is to solve whatever problem you have,” Steube said, adding that he’s asked his personnel to “go beyond” the needs of the citizens seeking help.

Steube addressed the challenges of his office, many of them associated with funding for criminal justice operations.

For example, the sheriff said when federal funding for a multi-agency violent crimes task force went away, so did the task force.

Now, with violent crime on the rise in the county and across the country, Steube said the task force has been reformed, but leaner and with more local focus.

“When we started having all these drive-by shootings, we started the task force again,” Steube said. “And we made a number of arrests.”

The suspects, however, were returning to the streets because victims and witnesses disappeared - they moved away or recanted statements.

So the sheriff’s office began arresting alleged gang leaders under racketeering laws, including members of the Brown Pride Locos and Sur-13, the gang suspected of involvement in the Coquina Beach shootings on Easter Sunday.

“Basically, the shootings stopped,” Steube said, adding that a similar sweep-tactic has been employed to curb drug dealing in the county.

Steube said that with Manatee County facing major budget cuts, his office will not receive the $12 million increase he requested.

But, Steube said, he believes he secured funding for the next fiscal year for cost-of-living salary increases and eight new employees, including two technicians to bolster the computer technology division.

With a proposed constitutional amendment that would further cut government funding set for a vote in January, Steube noted, “I’m scared to death about January.”

Audience members asked a variety of questions. Several focused on drugs, children and education.

One member of the audience asked whether resource officers continue to be placed in the schools.

Yes, replied Steube, adding that the school district and sheriff’s office split the cost.

“I think that’s a very, very important program,” he said.

Another audience member asked: Are there many meth labs in Manatee County?

Not that the sheriff’s office has seen, Steube replied, adding that aviation patrol does use an infrared heat-detection system to scope out possible indoor marijuana farms.

Holmes Beach Commissioner David Zaccagnino asked what role the sheriff’s office plays in homeland security.

“I’m going to tell you,” Steube said, “we’ve worked some active cases.” He said the sheriff’s office routinely checks Port Manatee and the airport, as well as the water supply.

“Right now, there are a lot of rumors and talk that Al-Qaeda is getting ready to do something in the United States,” Steube said. “If it’s going to happen in Florida, the Port of Tampa is right there. And what are we next to?”

Holmes Beach Commissioner John Monetti asked Steube how his office’s work most impacted life on the Island, which on the surface exudes a “Mayberry” atmosphere.

“Any drug arrest we make” has an impact Steube said, noting that drugs are a problem everywhere.

Steube offered audience members some basic safety tips, informing them that the sheriff’s office is dealing with a number of car burglaries in which the suspects go from vehicle to vehicle looking for unlocked doors.

“Lock your cars,” he said, “and don’t leave anything out in the open.”

Steube also cautioned people not to leave their keys unattended, because a criminal can take them, walk into the parking lot and use the electronic lock or alarm sensor to locate the car.

When an emergency occurs, Steube reminded the audience to call 911. In a non-emergency, the sheriff’s office is 941-747-3011 - and he can be reached at extension 2222.

“It’s very easy to remember,” he said.