ON THE RECORD/New female sheriff laying down the law
Forget Wyatt Earp, there’s a new kind of sheriff in town. This month, when Susan Benton is sworn in as sheriff of Highlands County, Fla., she will become the state’s first female to hold the position without taking over for her husband. And, as American City & County learned during a recent interview, her credentials, which include 30 years in law enforcement, put the good ol’ boys to shame.
Q: What made you decide to leave your previous position and run for sheriff?
A: I had been working for the Sheriff’s Office as lieutenant of the Criminal Investigation Division. A series of things happened that led me to run. My husband passed away five years ago, and my children are both grown. I had finished a master’s degree, in addition to a certified public manager designation that I received two years ago. When the sheriff announced he was retiring, it was a message to seize the moment. I felt that I was ready personally and professionally to take on something like this.
Q: Were you concerned about your gender preventing you from being elected?
A: I really believed initially that was going to be the biggest hurdle, especially coming from a smaller, rural central Florida community. But surprisingly, as time went on, I didn’t see it as near as big a hurdle. In fact, it became empowering because women joined forces in a nonpartisan effort and got charged up. People were excited about this particular race in our community, and I think they began to look, not at gender, but at qualification and experience.
Q: What issues do you want to address as sheriff?
A: First, I want to establish a visioning committee from members of the community, as well as internal folks at the Sheriff’s Office, to develop a strategic plan. We traditionally have operated based on the budget, and the budget has been our plan. We’ve had no real strategy of accomplishing particular goals or objectives. The next thing would be to increase the visibility of patrol. We haven’t added uniform patrol folks out responding to calls in about 10 years. And we need to train them not just to write a report of whatever someone wants to report. They need to be action-oriented and identify what the problem is and call in every resource to fix the problem so that we don’t have to go back.
Q: What qualities do you think are needed to be a good sheriff?
A: I think excellent leadership skills are crucial, because today’s sheriff offices are not unlike a big corporation where the CEO has to have the vision to bring the organization forward and make it profitable. Otherwise, he or she could bankrupt the company. Law enforcement is no different. We are operating huge budgets, with a lot of human resources, and if we fail in leadership envisioning, we could bankrupt our community, in essence. We would have a crime-ridden community where people wouldn’t feel safe to go about their business, go shopping, or whatever. That ends up affecting your economy.
Q: Why do you think most people underestimate a woman’s ability to perform this job?
A: I think tradition is a main reason. In the movies, the sheriff is the man, the guy with the big stick and long-handled pistol. The other thing is people still think in terms of brute physical force. They believe being a sheriff takes more brawn than brains. But your sheriff isn’t the one handling the bar fights. Where men might have physical strength over a woman, generally speaking, a female officer can, nine times out of 10, talk someone out of a situation like that. A female’s communication style is generally more conducive to mediating things.