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America’s favorite sheriff talks about cops, criminals and his 50-year career

Sheriff Grady Judd’s best advice for officers is what they’re not told in police academies: simply to remember that most folks are decent, hardworking people

Grady Judd car.JPG

Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County, Florida is an icon. He’s upheld the law for 50 years in a booming region between Tampa and Orlando, where tourists and orange groves share space with the grittier industries of cattle and phosphate mining. He’s done it with unparalleled flair: Judd is famous for his folksy and often funny press conferences. Reporters compile his “Greatest Hits” each year as if he were a rock star.

Judd defies stereotypes. He’s a family man celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary in a career field littered with divorce. He’s a plainspoken communicator who set about repairing relationships with the community and media (while occasionally horrifying the politically correct). He’s a passionate protector of his community, the constitutional rights of his constituents and the safety of his deputies. In a world where “Florida man” is social media shorthand for bad choices, he’s an advocate for common sense, modern training and advanced education. Plus, he’s the kind of boss whose deputies collaborate to surprise him with a replica of his first patrol car to celebrate 50 years of service.

I caught up with Sheriff Judd during a hectic week for him, squeezing a phone interview into the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.

What’s changed and what stayed the same over 50 years

“What’s stayed the same?” Judd echoed my question. “Serving and protecting people. The core mission has not changed. It is a much more drug-induced society we are policing, with a higher percentage of drug addiction and suicide.”

In Florida, as in much of the nation, overall crime has fallen while violent crime has increased.

“What used to be fist fights now involves guns and knives,” Judd said. “And sometimes I wonder how we even solved crime before there was so much technology. The first thing we do is run to tech - cell pings, surveillance cameras, DNA matches instead of fingerprints. The ability to solve crime, to deter crime, has been remarkably improved.”

Judd continued, “It is MUCH easier to apprehend criminals now than early in my career. People know there are security cameras and such, even inside houses. Social media has improved communication with the community; they want to be involved. When I came to work in the sheriff’s office, there was one teletype computer. Everything else was hand-filed. Now everything is computerized and there’s instant feedback.”

He paused. “Now is a pretty exciting time. I’m blessed.”

The value of experience and education

When Judd speaks of his experience, he’s speaking from an extensive background, beginning as a dispatcher. He worked his way through the department, holding every rank between the emergency call takers console and being elected sheriff for the first time in 2005. He comes down firmly on the side of formal education in the current debate over qualifications for modern law enforcement.

“I started a police science program at community college, right out of high school. Change was coming; I knew that police had to be more educated to progress. LEAA (Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965) and LEEP (Law Enforcement Education Program) federal funds provided a full ride for me through a master’s degree at Rollins College. Those programs have expired but they planted seeds, and one of them was me.”

Experiencing the positive results of higher education made Judd a believer. He convinced the sheriff he worked for then to create a tuition reimbursement program for the department. Now sergeants and lieutenants in Polk County need to finish a bachelor’s degree; captains and above need a master’s degree.

“I’ve seen the manifestation of professionalism. Education makes the difference,” Judd said. “We’ve created a culture here of both education and responsiveness.” Judd added that he sends his people to “finishing schools” – advanced programs specifically designed to develop leadership and communications skills.

“Any success that I’ve had, I first give credit to God, my wife, and then the men and women of the sheriff’s office,” Judd said. “I’m just the coach. They do the heavy lifting.”

About those press conferences

Judd is famously informative and blunt when he speaks to the press. He’s announced BOLOs filled with Dr. Seuss references and pet-adoption videos filled with cute kittens. When the nation was in the throes of civil unrest and riots, he calmly called out bad cops and warned rioters and looters to stay out of Polk County, all in less than five minutes.

How does he do that, when nearly every other police/press interaction is tense and fraught?

“I’ve spent a lifetime studying the art and science of public safety and communicating. You can’t have one without the other,” Judd said. “Law enforcement agencies have spent a lot of time not communicating with their bosses: the people who pay taxes. They’ve also spent a lot of time not communicating with the press, trying to keep information confidential.”

He continued, “I taught college classes as an adjunct for years; I’ve learned how to communicate. So, when I became sheriff, I decided we’re gonna quit fighting with the media. We’re going to use (Florida’s) very liberal public records laws to our advantage instead. We give the best information we have, as fast as possible. As soon as I know anything, I tell the public, here’s what we know, right now. As we know more, we’ll give you more.”

It wasn’t a popular decision at first. “It panicked people at first,” Judd said. “But we’re going to tell people the truth.” And it worked the way he intended.

“Animosity between us and the media immediately dissipated. They no longer think we must be hiding something. And it’s spreading! I’m a trailblazer, but we built this trust with the media, with the public, with social media. We have 95 million views on TikTok alone,” Judd said. “You’ve gotta talk to people like you’re sitting in their living room, drinking a glass of iced tea. I say if you mess up, then dress up, fess up and fix it up. Then the public will see us as real people, and they can relate. You’ve gotta love ‘em, treat them with mutual respect. If you’re a jerk to people, you can’t be surprised when they’re a jerk to you.”

One unusual place that regard for public trust takes Judd’s policy is a consistent rejection of body-worn cameras for his deputies. He believes that it’s far too expensive, but more importantly, a violation of the public’s right to privacy and a discouragement to witness participation in criminal investigations. Instead, he reminds the public frequently that they all have cell phones with cameras and he invites them to record anything they want that his deputies do or say, for free.

Advice for young officers and seasoned ones, too

Judd’s best advice for officers is what they’re not told in police academies: simply to remember that most folks are decent, hard-working people.

“For young officers to follow rules and policies, they must be appropriately trained. They go from tragedy to tragedy every day, and their supervisors have to tell them that this isn’t the whole world. The people you are not interacting with are good. They love you, they trust you, and even good people overreact when they’re scared. You stand in the gap for them,” Judd said.

To reinforce this, Judd requires all command staff to belong to a civic organization of their choice - a service group, youth sports, or religious organizations, for example.

He said, “Officers need interaction, to see good people in good settings, not hang out with just cops. That’s not an accurate worldview.”

Judd knows from personal experience how critical it is to maintain a balanced perspective about the people in his county. He has suffered losses personal and professional during his tenure; the day after we talked, a very young Polk County deputy died in a heartbreaking shooting during a warrant service. The emotion in his voice during that press conference was raw. Nevertheless, he remembers that he may be speaking about a bad person, but he’s speaking to good, hard-working people who count on him and his department.

On a healthy marriage in a hard career field

Few marriages make it to 50 years; fewer still make it that far in a law enforcement family. Judd married Marisa, his high school sweetheart, at a time when there was no overtime pay or comp time. They worked opposite shifts and saw each other for only a few hours each week. When he worked undercover assignments, they might go for days without contact, in an era before cell phones. His advice for those who would get married and stay married is typically direct: Choose a spouse carefully. Have clear communications and expectations. Be absolutely loyal and dedicated to the person you choose.

“And,” Judd added, “if God is not in the center of your life, nothing else is going to work.”

Trust, Judd explained, is something that comes to you when you give it away. “You have to trust in each other. I have never found any woman who means what my wife means to me, but my family suffered for me to work this job. They went without, so I could help others.”

That sacrifice goes on. Judd described his son’s 41st birthday party this year: an officer-involved shooting took place right in the middle of the cake-cutting. As the sheriff took his leave to take care of business, his son called after him, “Some things never change, Dad!”

“It takes a special family, not a special person, to be a successful law enforcement officer. They have to be willing to donate to the community. I got up at 3:30 in the morning this Tuesday to be at work before Hurricane Ian arrived. I didn’t get back till Thursday night,” Judd said.

And Marisa? His wife of 50 years rode out the hurricane on an inflatable mattress in the sheriff’s office; the building is designed to withstand the heavy weather, unlike their house. He felt better knowing she was safe there rather than alone while he worked three days straight, and making do is nothing new for her.

“It’s a team at work and it’s a team at home, “ Judd said.

Vision for the future

Judd believes that the future will bring better, safer communities through new advances in technology. “It’s hard to commit crimes successfully now,” he said. “I think technology will take us to a different level yet. As law enforcement officers, we need to understand that customer service with urgency is mandatory while being careful to preserve peoples’ privacy rights.”

And for himself? He has served the people of Polk County for 50 years and says he anticipates continuing to work for them as long as he remains healthy.

“What you see is what you get with me,” Judd said. “At home, at work, in front of the camera. My director of communications calls me the Happy Warrior. When they put me in the ground, I want them to say, ``He loved his community and left it better than he found it. He loved his family more than his community, and he loved his God more than them all.’ If they can say that, I’ll be a happy man.”

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.