Investigation finds shoddy recordkeeping, uninstalled software among problems at Fort Pierce Animal Control [Treasure Coast Newspapers, Stuart, Fla.]
(Treasure Coast Newspapers (Stuart, FL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Dec. 15--FORT PIERCE -- Animal Control received a complaint about a dog in the 1000 block of north 22nd Street confined to an unsanitary yard. The dog had sores, ribs showing and a heavy chain around its neck.
Records show the complaint was logged on April 18, but anything done beyond that is a mystery because there's no document on file showing when or if Animal Control responded. Only a notation shows Animal Control issued the pet owner a voucher on July 10 for low-cost or free sterilizing.
Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers spent five months looking into Fort Pierce Animal Control following criticism over how the department is responding to animal complaints and enforcing local laws. The investigation found shoddy recordkeeping, a department with little accountability, a $2,950 computer program purchased more than a year ago to fix record problems hasn't been installed and a comparatively weak animal control ordinance.
In some cases, there's no way for residents to follow up on complaints they reported or track repeat offenders and how many times Animal Control was called out to a particular home because records are so poorly kept.
The number of citations Fort Pierce Animal Control issues compared to overall service calls is relatively low compared to neighboring Port St. Lucie, records show.
Fort Pierce's three animal control officers responded to 9,413 calls between July 2012 and July 2013 and issued a combined 213 citations and written warnings. By comparison, one of Port St. Lucie's seven animal control officers responded to 1,142 calls and issued 617 citations and written warnings in a one-year period.
Critics said not only do these inefficiencies allow for possible taxpayer waste and no checks and balances, they also contribute to increased animal neglect and undocumented repeat offenders.
"There is no animal control," said Fort Pierce resident Diane Chrisco, who said she complained to Animal Control for six years about a neighbor who kept 13 pitbulls in "horrendous" conditions.
A review of more than 2,700 pages of 911 Fort Pierce Animal Control calls and hundreds of pages of the department's internal records paint a picture of a disorganized department behind on technology and with lax oversight.
Tracking how officers respond to and follow up on calls is often impossible because there's no consistent or standard practice of documenting calls and cases.
Animal Control Manager Peggy Arraiz said everything officers do from checking in and out of work and taking lunch breaks to going on service calls is only documented verbally through the county's 911 system.
Arraiz said officers just learned to use computers since she took charge of Animal Control from the Police Department in 2010.
Animal Control in mid-2012 doled out $2,950 for Shelter Pro, a records management system that allows officers to remotely update and track cases from the field. However, the newspaper investigation found the software hasn't been installed on computers, and Arraiz said it's despite her requests to the city's Information Technology Department.
Marjorie Gaskin, director of the city's Information Technology Department, said Shelter Pro hasn't been installed because the city has been in a long process of upgrading its computer system to allow for remote access. Gaskin also noted the money to purchase Shelter Pro came out of her budget because Animal Control couldn't afford it.
City Commissioner Tom Perona said he has spoken to City Manager Robert Bradshaw about issues in Animal Control -- including upgrading the system.
"As I see it now our Animal Control is not broken," Perona said. "What is broken is the communications and information that comes from their efforts. Peggy has had a hard time being able to document everything that's going on, and I think it's very, very important. We have function happening, but the records are not as accurate or forthcoming as they should be, and that's the problem."
After the newspaper launched its investigation and started reviewing records, Arraiz said she was in the process of revamping the department's recordkeeping.
"I've noted some deficiencies," Arraiz said. "There is no case tracking system. Our registration documentation is just as poor, but that is so close to being fixed. Shelter Pro will take care of these issues."
Animal Control officers use general and sometimes vague short explanations, such as "followed up on call" or "information given," to close service calls with 911. A review of 911 records show many don't specify what a complaint was about or how it was handled, if at all. In many cases, Animal Control also doesn't document the calls on official internal records.
Rather, the city's three animal control officers track their calls on handwritten, cryptic notes they keep in their vehicles. Officers have laptops, but say there's little use for them without software. They generally use them to locate addresses and document how many calls they handle per month.
Tiffany Bennett, St. Lucie County's public safety manager who oversees the 911 system, said for undocumented calls officials would have to refer to 911 recordings to retrieve information. However, recordings are erased after 90 days, at which point an officer would have to recall his or her response to a complaint.
"All our job is to take information and put it in the system. Whatever they give us is all we can do," Bennett said. "Some calls don't give a clear picture of what happened."
Arraiz said officers don't always document calls because they don't have the time or technology to be efficient.
Animal Control Officer B.J. Gasparre said officers had no computers and had to buy their own supplies when Animal Control was under the Police Department. They are just starting to get proper equipment under Arraiz, including temperature meters to measure how hot it is when animals are inside vehicles and dog houses.
Port St. Lucie Animal Control Supervisor Bryan Lloyd said his officers are equipped with laptops -- and have been since 2003, which are connected to the 911 animal complaint system. When officers respond to a call they use their laptops to update and document calls. Officers also use the system to look up addresses and names to search cases.
Everything is documented, Lloyd said.
"We do reports for just about every time we have a physical address for an alleged violation," he said.
Arraiz said there have been only three officers to cover the city's approximate 29 square miles in the past 10 years. She said she'd like to have five officers, two to cover Animal Control seven days a week and to fill in when officers are on vacation or out sick.
Arraiz also oversees the city's Code Enforcement Department, which shares one administrative secretary with Animal Control.
"If I had an administrative person specific for Animal Control it would be different," Arraiz said. "The records were probably better in the Police Department because they had an entire records division. ... I don't have that."
Arraiz said Animal Control is close to signing a contract with PetData, which will handle the city's animal licensing and free up officers to do more enforcement.
"Obviously, more staff would equal more effectiveness and more timely responses," Arraiz said. "It would also provide for more coverage hours, Sundays, and possibly evening hours when the responses fall to the (Police Department)."
Records show Fort Pierce Animal Control collectively issued fewer than 100 citations and had one animal cruelty investigation between July 2012 and July 2013. In contrast, Port St. Lucie issued 1,154 citations and five animal cruelty investigations in a one-year period.
Fort Pierce Animal Control officers said local laws are too weak and don't go far enough to protect animals. They said they can only enforce what the law requires, which is basic care for an animal such as food, water and shelter.
Perona wants to strengthen the city's animal control laws. They are not as strong as others in terms of space requirements, limiting or outlawing dog chaining, and temperature regulations for outdoor dogs.
Perona had a previous proposal to ban tethering or chaining dogs, but it did not get the City Commission's support. He plans to try for the ban again, as well as outlaw poorly ventilated, wooden enclosures that immobilize dogs. Arraiz said she would support changing the laws, but she said she has never brought a proposal forward because it's the Commission's responsibility to change the laws.
But United for Animals co-founder Susan Parry and veterinarian technician Janice Douglas -- volunteers with the United for Animals' Happy Hounds nonprofit program that goes into Fort Pierce to attempt to help animal owners -- said officers aren't enforcing local laws against animals being kept in unsanitary conditions or not being given proper medical attention.
"I don't believe in keeping a dog in a box, but the law allows it, and there's nothing you can do about it," Animal Control Officer Kenny Nelson said. "Until the commissioners change the laws, our hands are tied.
"Just writing them a citation is not going to account for anything," Nelson said. "The best way is to try to work with them, and most of the time they'll try to work with you."
ANIMAL CONTROL STATISTICS
Here's a look at the statistics for three animal control departments during a one-year period:
Service calls: 9,413
Citations/written warnings: 213
Verbal warnings: 312
Cruelty cases: 1
Full-time officers: 3
Port St. Lucie
Service calls: 6,877
Citations/written warnings: 1,154
Verbal warnings: Not tracked
Cruelty cases: 5
Full-time officers: 7
Service calls: 612
Citations/written warnings: 15
Verbal warnings: Not tracked
Cruelty cases: 1
Full-time officers: 1
Source: City officials and records
ABOUT THIS STORY
Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers spent five months obtaining and reviewing thousands of pages of 911 records and hundreds of pages of Animal Control records while investigating the Fort Pierce Animal Control Department. The newspaper did two ride-alongs -- one with Animal Control and another with volunteers from United for Animals' Happy Hounds program, a city-backed program that seeks to educate residents about pet ownership.
(c)2013 the Treasure Coast Newspapers (Stuart, Fla.)
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