Police chief discusses policing challenges for Key West
February 8, 2019
Key West Police Chief Sean Brandenburg has patrolled all areas of Key West, at all hours of the, well, mostly the night.
Brandenburg’s been policing the Southernmost City for the past 17 years, but many people never saw him due to his nocturnal status in all operational areas of the police force: As a K-9 patrol officer, a Special Response Team officer, a sergeant, a detective sergeant and a lieutenant — all on night shifts.
“Then four years ago, I made the switch to day shifts, and was finally able to start coming to luncheons like these, hosted by the Key West Business Guild and other organizations,” said Brandenburg, an Indiana native who spent 12 years policing in his Midwest hometown before coming to Key West in 2002.
Brandenburg has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Indiana University and later spent 13 weeks at the FBI’s headquarters at Quantico, Virginia, where he “completed five master-level courses in organizational leadership.”
In leading a police force sworn to protect the island’s 25,000 residents and thousands of tourists on any given day, Brandenburg led the Key West Business Guild audience through some of the challenges of policing in Key West. Not surprisingly, he said the biggest challenge is recruitment and retention of officers, who can often make a similar salary in a city where housing is much more affordable and they may have a chance of buying and owning their own home.
“Our starting pay is about $55,000 a year, which sounds great,” Chief Brandenburg said, but warned that much of that gets eaten away when a new officer enrolls his/her spouse and/or kids in the helpful, but pricey benefits plan, Brandenburg said. “Another problem we have has become known as ‘The Ferguson Effect,’ in which people just no longer want to be police officers.”
The term applies to the “idea that increased scrutiny of police following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri has led to an increased crime rate (or sometimes increased murder rate) in major U.S. cities,” according to a report by Ashley Gold for BBC News in June 2015. “The mechanism usually suggested is that police have less vigorous enforcement in situations that might lead to backlash, though other mechanisms are suggested. The term was coined by Doyle Sam Dotson III, the chief of the St. Louis police, to account for an increased murder rate in some U.S. cities following the Ferguson unrest.”
Brandenburg explained it simply by saying, “The Ferguson Effect basically says that people don’t want to be police officers anymore. We’re trying to sponsor six applicants to the police academy and pay their academy tuition, but I don’t have six good applicants yet.”
“Homelessness is also always a challenge for us,” Brandenburg said. “I can tell you, police arresting homeless people is not the answer, and it’s certainly not the most cost-effective answer. We do have a large number of working homeless in town who we as police officers never deal with because they’re not the repeat offenders, the trespassers, that become known more as vagrants than homeless.”
Brandenburg also addressed the frightening factors of substance abuse and addiction that he’s seen change over the years, especially during his time as a narcotics officer at night.
“Since I worked with the narcotics squad so many years, back then it was prescription pills that was the problem that people would do anything to get, but now with new state laws, those pills — pharmaceutical-grade heroin — aren’t so easy to get. The addicts are still addicted, but they can’t get their pills, so they turn to buying heroin and Fentanyl on the street, which makes our job tougher,” Brandenburg said before discussing recent training opportunities his officers have had, and his desire to continue improving the department that has a $15 million operating budget.
The chief said his officers recently used the old Gerald Adams Elementary School building on College Road as a training site for an active shooter drill.
“Before they tore down that old Gerald Adams school, they let us in to kick down doors, and do a mock hunt for bad guys and have to determine who were the good guys and who were the bad,” he said. “It was very effective training.”
“I’d like to continue to improve our Community Policing,” he said. “I’m trying to get the officers out of their cars more. I want to continue to build relationships within the community before the police are needed, so that there’s a chance we’ll know each other before we need each other.”