Tallahassee Democrat: Amid contract fight, police union billboards blast city of Tallahassee on crime, murder rate

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By Karl Etters

Amid a bitter contract dispute, the Tallahassee police union has purchased billboard space spotlighting the crime and murder rate and warning parents to “think again” before sending their children to town for college.

The Big Bend Police Benevolent Association sponsored billboards went up at prominent intersections at midnight Wednesday, said President Richard Murphy who is in the middle of contract mediation negotiations. The billboards appeared the same day the PBA is in mediation with Tallahassee city officials pushing for an end to a contract impasse.

The billboards warn people about the crime rate and encourage them to call City Manager Reese Goad and push him for a fair contract.

“Thinking of sending your child to college in Tallahassee? Think again,” the billboards read. “Tallahassee is the 5th most dangerous city in Florida. Murders are the highest they’ve been in years.”

The digital billboard, one of which is at the intersection of Market Street and Thomasville Road, plays in succession with advertisements purchased by the city of Tallahassee thanking the Tallahassee Police Department and the Tallahassee Fire Department. 

Back story:Tallahassee and Leon County saw a record number of murders in 2020, mirroring national trend

A digital billboard at the corner of Thomasville Road and Market Street displays an advertisement purchased by the Big Bend Police Benevolent Association discouraging parents from sending their children to college in Tallahassee, citing the city's crime and murder rates amid a bitter contract dispute between the Tallahassee Police Department union and the city of Tallahassee Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

Tallahassee and Leon County saw a record number of murders in 2020 — part of an uptick in violent crime across the country, tallying 28 last year, according to records from the Tallahassee Police Department and the Leon County Sheriff’s Office. That’s a 33% increase over 2019, when the city and county had 21 murders. The previous record of 22 murders was set in 2017. https://8282ba87c81d7fbdab861a597c52ebb9.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

The billboards appearance came a day after an innocent bystander was killed during an exchange of gunfire between two men at a Circle K gas station.

More:Innocent bystander caught in crossfire of Circle K fatal shooting; TPD arrests two men

Murphy said it’s a coincidence that negotiations and the billboards occurred on the same day.

“We’re trying to educate the whole community why we should get a fair and competitive contract that can help with recruitment and retention,” he said. “Have we been frustrated in this process by the city? Yes. But we’ve got to get serious about addressing our crime problem.”https://8282ba87c81d7fbdab861a597c52ebb9.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

The move drew immediate backlash from some in the community, who questioned whether the PBA was working against itself.

City Commissioner Curtis Richardson, who along with his colleagues would eventually vote to ratify any contract with the PBA, said he was dismayed by the tactic.

“I’m very disappointed to say the least because that is an indictment on our community, not just the city of Tallahassee government, but our community generally,” he said, noting the timing and the high number of enrollments in Tallahassee for the fall 2021 freshman classes.

“Extremely poor timing. We’ll continue the negotiating process,” he added. “I wish they had taken that into consideration before they decided to do that billboard.”

Leon County Republican chair Evan Power weighed in on Twitter saying the billboard’s message on crime and murders were a “real concern.” 

“Why the @CityofTLH won’t support our law enforcement is beyond me,” he wrote.

But Ron Sachs, a former Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce chair and downtown business owner of a public relations firm that does contract work for the city, said the billboards were a PR blunder on the part of the PBA.

“Most taxpayers and residents will be deeply offended by this despicable tactic by the PBA,” he said in an email. “It truly disserves the community, disrespects the brave women and men who wear the TPD badge to protect and serve us all, and cheap-shots our three excellent higher educational institutions. This unwise strategy runs the high risk of eroding, not enhancing, public support and it properly will backfire on the PBA.”

Sue Dick, the President of the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce, rejected the billboard’s message that Tallahassee was an unsafe place to send kids for college.

“Parents from all over Florida, the country and even internationally trust their children to Tallahassee as a safe community where our trio of outstanding, nationally respected and recognized universities and colleges prepare those young people for the future,” she said. “It’s wrong for the PBA to engage in this regrettable effort to undermine our city”

The area’s top law enforcement official, State Attorney Jack Campbell, noted that the issues raised by the PBA are ones that officers with TPD and other law enforcement agencies in town work toward solving every day.

“Obviously I disagree with the suggestion and the commentary that we are a community where people need to be afraid,” Campbell said.

“To use fear as a negotiating strategy is disappointing to me. Our law enforcement is better than that. Our community is better than that. That’s not who we are. Of course there are things we work on and candidly TPD and the officers they employ are on the frontline of those issues.”

An impasse was declared last fall. Murphy said TPD officers pay among the highest in the state into their pension, and take-home pay is one of the lowest of law enforcement officers at agencies across the region.

More:City, PBA headed to contract mediation at end of month

In 2020 according to city documents, the gross salary range for TPD officers who are PBA members ranged from $143,057 at the high end to $50,298 at the entry level. A city official added that the average salary for an officer is $79,133.