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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 7, 2018 6 months ago

Body of work: Forensics institute poised to spur economic development, tourism

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A cop and former pro football player team up to push law enforcement training into the future — using a business-centric strategy.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Under a new public-private partnership that kicked off with a $4.3 million state grant, Pasco County officials are taking a unique approach to economic development.

Dubbed the Forensics Institute for Research Security and Tactics, or FIRST, the project aims to make Land O’Lakes, in southern Pasco, one of the nation’s leading destinations for what officials call police tourism. Another primary goal: produce a new generation of forward-thinking public safety leaders who think and operate more like results-driven businesspeople.

Phase one, the Body Farm — a partnership with the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Sciences at the University of South Florida — is up and running. Simply put, it’s a field littered with the remains of people who have donated their bodies to science so law enforcement personnel can solidify their understanding of how corpses decompose in a subtropical climate. The knowledge gleaned there, Pasco officials hope, could help investigators solve homicide and missing-person cases that have long gone cold.

But that’s not all, say Capt. Justin Ross of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and area business leader Rogerick Green, the duo leading the institute and a roadshow-like public awareness campaign of what it offers. Green is a former NFL defensive back who played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars before embarking on a career in health care, education and insurance.

The institute also will offer training in areas such as K-9 and drone tactics, leadership development and cybersecurity. “Basically, we want to help write the future of law enforcement,” says Ross, 30. The end game, he says, is research- and data-driven public safety training that fills the gap that sometimes exists between academic knowledge and its application in the field.

For example, Ross says scientific research about working dogs in the military is more robust — but also generalized — than that concerning similar types of K-9 dogs police commonly use. 

'We want to help write the future of law enforcement.' Justin Ross, Forensics Institute for Research Security and Tactics, Pasco County Sheriff’s Office

“They have many similarities, but they also have some differences,” Ross says. “Physiologically, dogs respond much different in our subtropical climate then they do in, say, up in Michigan or in the dry climate of Texas. So having research specific to our climate, using dogs in our climate, will teach how to best utilize them so we can be more effective.”

With the Body Farm operational, the second piece of FIRST will be the Thomas Varnadoe Forensic Center for Education and Research, paid for by the $4.3 million grant and located near the Pasco County detention center. A groundbreaking for the facility, which will focus mainly on training for forensic anthropologists, was held in September.

The big challenge of turning the institute into a sustainable job- and tourism-growth engine, meanwhile, falls to Green, 49. He's already pursuing an $8 million state economic development grant, as well as partnerships with the private sector.

“You have a lot of private companies out there that are in the business of a lot of the areas that we’re focused on,” he says. “They’re going to want to do some R&D, and what better way to do R&D than alongside a law enforcement training center, in a real-world environment?”

Ross and Green expect the institute to employ about 80 people after it's fully built out. Revenue will be generated from fees paid by law enforcement agencies; colleges and universities; and other organizations nationwide that send personnel for training at the institute. Fees will go into a special revenue fund used only for operating and developing the facility. 

“We’re hoping that companies will see this as an opportunity to come in and utilize our resources and team up with our personnel,” Green says. “That will help stir economic development within the county, as well, with businesses potentially moving in.”

Ross and Green also envision the institute as a place devoted to turning out public safety leaders devoted to lifetime learning, like some counterparts in the business world.

“In law enforcement, we work 30 years and then retire and go teach; sometimes what we teach is what worked for us while we were on the job, but isn’t the best tactics for tomorrow," says Ross, who, despite his relative youth, has been with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office for 12 years. "We saw that as a gap in the market, something that was needed. That’s what drove us in this direction.”

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