McNeil plans to engage deputies as sheriff

Walt McNeil said his time as sheriff won’t be an extension of Mike Wood’s style. / Photo by St. Clair Murraine

Walt McNeil said his time as sheriff won’t be an extension of Mike Wood’s style. / Photo by St. Clair Murraine

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

Walt McNeil ran a campaign for sheriff of Leon County mostly on his experience and two weeks after becoming the first Black in the modern era to run the law enforcement agency his mantra hasn’t changed.

McNeil, who served almost 10 years as chief of Tallahassee Police Department, said he’ll use some of the same strategies that led to the city’s lowest crime rate during his era with TPD. He especially wants to engage his deputies in most decisions.

“I want to hear what anybody has to say because it enables me to make the best decision,” McNeil said. “To have a good healthy debate about an issue allows me to see something perhaps that I didn’t necessarily think of. That’s why I’m going to always come to the table. I know my own limitations. I’m looking to people who are a lot smarter than me.”

McNeil, who ran against three other candidates that included incumbent Mike Wood, won more than 45 percent of the votes. He will be sworn into office on Jan. 3 to begin serving a four-year term.
McNeil retired from his last law enforcement job as chief of the city of Quincy police department to run for the Leon County position. His experience spans more than three decades in various positions and he’s been involved in assisting foreign governments to find ways to improve law enforcement in their countries.

At home McNeil has served as President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He’s also served on several advisory task forces, including being a member of the Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council.

McNeil’s plan to stay the course in the way he engages his subordinates will help morale, as it did when he was TPD chief, said David Folsom, a retired TPD captain. Folsom was hired by McNeil in 1988 and eventually was promoted to captain.

“I’m sure the deputies will find he is very empathetic but if you mess up Walt’s going to take care of it,” Folsom said. “I don’t know what the perceptions are out there but he is not a monolithic leader. He doesn’t push his beliefs on anybody; at all. He is a great person. He is going to do very well.”

Another of McNeil’s top priorities as Sheriff is to change the face of the sheriff’s office by bringing more diversity to the agency. However, he said it won’t necessarily be in the form of just increasing the number of Blacks and women among the deputies.

During his campaign, McNeil said, he constantly heard about the “significant lack of diversity in the sheriff’s office.”

“I look at it only in terms of diversity of thought and diversity of perspectives,” he said. “When you have different people from different walks of life with different experiences and you’re discussing a particular issue you’re going to get a much more well-rounded perspective.”

McNeil said he also plans to meet with law enforcement agencies in the city, including the police departments at FAMU, FSU and TCC. A meeting with state attorney general elect, Jack Campbell, also is on his to-do list,

One of the primary issues he plans to discuss with Campbell is how best to deal with mentally ill people charged with a crime. Revising the concept of having a court to try mentally ill criminals could be one way to help a means to treat them instead of imprisonment, he said.

McNeil also expressed a deep concern about the issue of first-time juvenile offenders, also something that Campbell addressed during his campaign.

“One thing we know about the criminal justice system, for a child especially, any contact they make with the system the likelihood of their going deeper into the system increases exponentially,” McNeil said. “I mean, it’s just off the charts. Anything we can do to divert kids from the prison system is money well spent.”

Since his election, McNeil has had at least two meetings with Wood to begin a transition. Their meetings have been amicable, he said, adding that “Sheriff Wood has open doors; everything I’ve asked for.”

Wood, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to finish the term of Larry Campbell who died in 2014 will retire from the Sheriff’s office in December.

McNeil said one of his first moves in the area of personnel is to begin evaluating deputies before announcing an under-sheriff. He also said that he won’t run the agency as an extension of Wood’s philosophies.

“Sheriff Wood had a direction that he wanted to go,” McNeil said. “I’m not sure how close that direction is going to be to the direction I want to go.”

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