McNeil brings optimism to sheriff’s office

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

Walt McNeil held the crowd spellbound during his swearing in speech, as he seemingly left a packed Turnbull conference room with a sense of optimism that he will reduce crime as sheriff of Leon County.

“I’m just eager to see what he has planned and even more excited to work with him,” said Leon County commissioner Nick Maddox. “I have no doubt that he is going to do some great things for Leon County.”

Maddox was among the more than 300 people who witnessed McNeil take the oath of office a week ago. Several law enforcement officers from Tallahassee Police Department and the sheriff’s agency also watched as McNeil officially became the first Black sheriff in the county in modern times.
McNeil, however, said the cross-section of people in the audience was an indication to him that all races and class are counting on him to be as effective as he was during a 10-year tenure as TPD chief.
“That says something to me about where Leon County has come and perhaps it gives us a peek into the future in terms of where Leon County can go,” he said. “I’m really excited about the opportunity to lead.”

McNeil said there will be changes in the agency, but he won’t make decisions on all of them without engaging his staff. He also plans to work closely with other law enforcement agencies, including the state attorney’s office, along with TPD and police on the campuses of FSU, FAMU and TCC.
He will start first with his staff, though.

“I’m looking forward to the debate,” he said. “I’ve always known that out of debate comes good solutions instead of people saying you’re the sheriff let’s do it your way.”

Prior to his first day on the job, McNeil met with his deputies in a meeting that Grady Jordan, lieutenant public information officer, said was productive. Most of the concerns that deputies had were addressed, including McNeil’s management style, Jordan said.

“Anytime you have change of this magnitude there is some nervousness,” he said. “People get concerned about the type of leadership because they don’t know this person. But with his articulation in the meeting, we are going to move in a positive direction because we don’t expect anything less from an individual that ran a campaign like his.”
McNeil defeated incumbent Mike Wood and two other challengers for the position in last November’s elections. McNeil was one of two Black candidates in the race, but now that he’s won his race isn’t a concern in the agency, Jordan said.
“He is the sheriff now,” Jordan said. “We are going to take his mantle up and march forward. We are excited about the new ideas and the innovative technology that he is going to bring into the agency. The fact that he is a Black Sheriff doesn’t matter.”

Maddox, however, was ecstatic about McNeil taking a place in history.

“It’s kind of like our first Black President Barack Obama,” Maddox said. “Sheriff McNeil came in and did something extraordinary and he should be given the credit. He will go into the history books today. But even more important is what he will accomplish after today. I’m just proud to have a sheriff like Walt McNeil.”

McNeil, who retired as chief of the city of Quincy police department to run for the Leon County position, brings more than 30 years of law enforcement experience to the job. In addition to serving 10 years as TPD chief, he has assisted foreign governments to find ways to improve law enforcement in their countries.

He also was president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and also served on several advisory task forces.

McNeil, who also is a member of the Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council, said he’s expecting some challenges as sheriff, but with a sense of excitement in facing them.

“I’m just kind of buoyed up,” he said, “realizing that the majority of the citizens really want to see some change and go in a different direction.”