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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Free Food In Pensacola

Don't going running to your nearest fast food outlet; this offer is good for Escambia County Sheriff's Office deputies only.


Coming from the East Bay side of the San Francisco Bay Area, meaning the Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond side of the Bay Area, where and what the local police ate was of no concern to anyone.  On any given day in any locale one could watch the local police order and pay for their food just like ordinary customers.

So, it is some culture shock to learn that in Pensacola it is basically common knowledge or an open secret that Escambia County Sheriff's Office deputies eat for free.  Many Pensacolans, white and Black, have told me this is the case.  In fact, they have assumed that everywhere you see Sheriff's Office patrol cars at fast food outlets that they are eating for free.

I openly asked at one national fast food outlet why the place was so popular with Sheriff's Office deputies and was told it was because they ate for free.  It was a quid pro quo relationship.  The outlet fed them for free and the deputies responded quicker on service calls.

This is not only unheard of in the East Bay, it creates perverse incentives for local business owners and robs them of gross receipts.

Perverse Incentives

If response time is a market, then local businesses are competing for faster response times by feeding the deputies for free.  This means that non-competing businesses--that is, those who choose not to provide free meals but who pay all local taxes--are not receiving the same services for their tax dollars.  Non-competing businesses get slower response times and "free food" outlets get faster response times.

Even if we assume, that the "free food" for deputies applies to a minority of deputies, the common assumption that all deputies are eating for free suggests to residents of Pensacola that the local deputies can be influenced through the provision of free food or services.

It suggests to them that when the Sheriff's Office does not respond quickly enough, it is because their business or their neighborhood is not competitive in the "response time" market.  It suggests to them that when they are not treated fairly or they see someone else get preferential treatment, that the deputy has somehow been influenced or bought in some unknown way.

This actually creates a moral and legitimacy problem for the Sheriff's Office because it lends credence to the idea that the Sheriff's Office is corrupt.

Why Does This Matter?

In a New York Review of Books article explaining the phrase "broken window" policing which lead to the widely reviled policy of "stop-and-frisk," Michael Greenberg explained:

"The phrase “broken windows” is a metaphor that neatly illustrates the [stop-and-frisk] policy....If a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, the rest of the windows will soon be broken as well, because the unrepaired window signals that no one cares.  This explains why the police make arrests for panhandling, public drunkenness, loitering, and other minor infractions that have long been considered by-products of urban street life: if allowed to flourish, they foster an atmosphere of disorder that causes law-abiding citizens to feel fearful and wary, as if the streets of their neighborhoods have been invaded and are not theirs."

Thus, the New York City Police Department (and departments around the country following this popular model) arrest people for these low-level crimes to keep criminals from becoming emboldened, more brazen, more invasive, and more violent.

We will leave aside the larger arguments about racial inequities in the policy and whether or not the policy was even responsible for the decline of crime in New York City.

The logic of the widely deployed policing model is that if you do not stop low-level crime, much more serious crimes occur.

Applying this logic to the Sheriff's Office, if providing free food and free services to deputies does not stop, more serious types of corruption will ensue, if they have not already.

After all, where is the line?  A free meal?  A free tailoring?  Free dry cleaning?  Free lube job and oil change?  Jewelry for the wife or girlfriend?  Catering your daughter's or son's wedding?  A free vacation?  Reduced bail amount?  A kickback from a bail bondsman for client referral?

Costs to Businesses

Providing a free meal to your local Sheriff's Office deputy, who is probably, under ordinary circumstances, a good person and civic minded, probably appears to be a friendly gesture; a way of supporting "the troops" in a town brimming with patriotic displays; and, a way to get faster response times on service calls; or, even a better understanding on that night you are a driving just a bit too erratically for your own good and the public's safety.

But, it does have a financial cost to local businesses.

According to the Escambia County Sheriff's Office official webpage, "Currently, over 250 sworn officers are assigned to the Patrol Unit and are responsible for answering calls for service 24 hours a day 7 days a week."

To calculate the potential costs to local businesses, we need to make some assumptions:

Assume only 200 per day on patrol.
Assume they eat only one fast food meal per day.
Assume meal costs 8.00 dollars.
Average day:  $1,600 free food.
Average week:  $11,200 free food.
Average month (4.2):  $44,800 free food
Average year:  $564,480 free food, plus lost taxes.

If the cost of a "free meal" is $9.00, the cost per year is $635,040, or $3.81 million since Sheriff Morgan's been in office.

If the cost of a "free meal" is $10.00, the cost per year is $705,600, or $4.23 million since Sheriff Morgan's been in office.

But, if all 250 are having free meals under the $10.00 per meal assumption, the cost to local businesses is $882,000 per year or $5.29 million dollars since Sheriff Morgan's been in office.

How much tax revenue to the county was potentially lost?

How many employees were not hired due to constraints on the business budget?

How many street lights were not installed on unlit roads in crime-prone neighborhoods?

This is the potential "fee" or "tax" the Deputy Sheriffs impose on local fast food outlets in Pensacola and Escambia County.

Concluding Observation

The actual number of deputies receiving free meals is unknown.  How often they receive free meals is unknown.  But the assumption that deputies eat for free at all the fast food outlets they frequent is apparently widespread and common knowledge among Pensacolans, white and Black, working class and well-off.  It is an open secret--shift supervisors and employees will tell people why their outlet is popular with the deputies.  In a sense, it is the norm.

The perception that deputies get free food undermines the legitimacy the Sheriff's Office.

The Sheriff's Office Public Information Officer was contacted for this story.  When asked about the policy, the PIO responded that it would be sent through normal public records request channels.  Snooze.  When asked to comment on the article, the Street Report received no reply by press time.

UPDATE (5/11/2015): The national food chains providing free food to Escambia County Sheriff's Office deputies are Taco Bell and Chic-fil-A.  If you find anymore fast food outlets providing free food to the deputies, drop us a line.


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