Over the past several months, we have enjoyed introducing you to some incredible members and teams of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office. From the dogs and divers to the motors and Marine Unit, you have been given a behind the scenes look at just a few of the men and women (and K9s) who serve and protect our community. Now, just a few months into her third year of service, we have a full-access, no-holds-barred interview with the top cop herself–Sheriff Michelle Cook. After a false start due to a call-out on a barricaded subject in a residence, we finally catch up with Sheriff Cook in the historic Old Courthouse in Green Cove Springs. On this day, we find the Sheriff surrounded by a sea of brass from several surrounding agencies as she walks them through the order of events for the upcoming press conference about the newly formed Intercept Task Force. Though dwarfed in stature by the other sheriffs, investigators, politicians, and organizational representatives, Sheriff Cook holds the attention of the group and displays a unique comfortability in today’s leadership role. Moments later, the Sheriff maintains her composure as the guest of honor, former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, arrives and prepares for the news conference. As we walk in unison up the creaky stairs and enter the prestigious old courthouse packed with members of the press and several community leaders, it doesn’t go unnoticed that Sheriff Cook turns control of the press conference over to the capable leadership of Undersheriff Ron Lendvay. Based on the conversations that we have had with individuals both inside and outside of the agency, we are witnessing one of the many traits of Sheriff Michelle Cook that have endeared her to those she works with and serves—the willingness the step out of the spotlight and allow others to shine.
As the press conference adjourns and we take a few moments to speak with Sheriff Cook one-on-one, the question of “Why?” is brought up first. We have posed this question to many of our prior interview subjects, but the question certainly looms large for Michelle Cook.
Specifically, we ask, “You had it made, Sheriff. You had retired from JSO after a lengthy run. You started there as a beat cop in the early 90s, served with integrity out on the street, and even managed to make it onto a few episodes of COPS® before being promoted into the Director of Patrol and Enforcement role. When you retired, you were a 3-star Director and third in command of that massive agency. You then moved on to a slightly less-demanding position as Chief of Police in Atlantic Beach. As a subject matter expert on Active Shooter Incident Management, you could have spent the rest of your days hosting conferences and making guest appearances on network news. Instead, you jump into the fray as the elected Sheriff of Clay County. Why?”
With a grin and restrained laugh, the Sheriff replied, “Yep, I had it made. No real stress, but I HAD to do it. I really felt God calling me into it (running for office). It was the first thing on my mind when I woke up in the morning, and it was the last thing on my mind as I fell asleep. The calling was real, and it was as strong as when I was first called into law enforcement.”
When questioned about the worst part of her job, the Sheriff pauses for a moment and then states, “I can’t say that there is a ‘worst’ but I would say that the most difficult part of my job is definitely when we are faced with the death of someone from our staff/agency. Whether they die in the line of duty or from an illness, the
loss tears at all of us because we are a family. I would say that another difficult part of the job is when I hear a citizen say that they don’t trust us. My personal mission in that situation is to win that trust back.”
When pressed about the best part of the job, Sheriff Cook states with enthusiasm, “Internally, I love celebrating life’s milestones with the staff—we just celebrated the birth of someone’s child, and that was so heartwarming. Externally, it is so encouraging when someone pulls me aside or sends me a note and says that they were raised to never trust law enforcement, but, because of the kindness or helpfulness of someone within CCSO, that person now recognizes that we are genuinely here to help and protect.”
When the Sheriff isn’t meeting with her Command Staff or performing one of the many other aspects of her role as Top Cop, she is serving on one of several boards or committees both within and outside of the law enforcement community. These connections have been crucial to the many successes that she has enjoyed during the past 2+ years. As we speak of those successes and accomplishments, Sheriff Cook quickly corrects me, “These are not ME, but WE. To be sure, I am tasked with being the leader of these fantastic men and women of CCSO as I serve in this community that I love, but these successes are owned by all of us. It takes a great team, inter-agency cooperation, and a lot of community support to do what we’ve done in such a short time.”
The list of wins is long and vast and includes SaferWatch, Day as a Deputy, Sheriff’s NET Town Hall, Cook’s Corner Senior Newsletter, a Podcast, the creation of the Drone Unit, Active Shooter Training, ClayROC, JP the station dog, an enhanced Chaplain Program, Student in the Spotlight emphasis, Veteran’s Dorm in the jail, Operation New Hope—a partnership for people leaving the jail, Jail Waste Management and automotive training, Faith Leaders Partnership, Hammer and Hope initiative, Gateway to Clay crime fighting initiative, and the largest drug bust in CCSO history.
In spite of this impressive list, the Sheriff makes it clear that she is not prepared to rest on her laurels. “When I think about the future of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, it is my goal to keep us on the cutting edge of strategies and technologies without losing the foundation of a family-centered culture and an agency of integrity. I am genuinely excited about the future of Clay County and our agency.”