By Stephanie Costolo       Photos By Bob Thompson – Thompson Brand Images & Pasco Sheriff’s Office Public Information Office

Our interview with Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco was on the schedule before Dallas happened… before Louisiana happened. Before events took place which have forced our law enforcement officers across the nation to jump into action to increase protection for themselves. Changes are occuring so rapidly with politics, law enforcement, and societal issues that it’s hard to even keep track of, much less sort out what it all means for our future. Our future as a community, as a nation and as a world is intrinsically tied together. What affects one affects all. In the wake of this recent violence against members of law enforcement, people are left wondering what’s next. We sat down with Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco to see what his take on the current atmosphere is and to find out what the Pasco Sheriff’s Office is doing to ensure that they continue to protect our communities, themselves and maintain the public’s trust of the public during these challenging times.

RM (Resident Magazine)- How long have you been in law enforcement and what did you start out doing?

CN (Chris Nocco)- In about 2000 I started off with the Philadelphia public school police at a school for  kids who either had to have two misdemeanors or a felony. I was there for only a short time (and then) I ended up going to Fairfax County, Virginia. I was in Fairfax for several years. I was there for the sniper incident, September 11th, and I was downtown for mass demonstrations a lot.  I saw a lot of things that changed our country. I met my beautiful wife there, and she is a Floridian. She hates the snow, she hates cold weather, and she said ‘let’s go down south.’ She wanted to come back here to Florida so I ended up coming to Broward Sheriff’s Office. I was at Broward County Sheriff’s Office for a while and worked the midnight shift. From there I had an opportunity to work in the Florida House, working for Speaker Marco Rubio for 4 years; two as his Staff Director and two years as his Deputy Chief of Staff when he was the Speaker of the House. I then had the opportunity to come here to Pasco, so we moved the family down here and I was a Captain, Major, and then appointed Sheriff.

I thought I had this plan in life.  When I was in high school I really thought I was going to be playing (football) on Sundays. I had this dream that I was going to play in the NFL and then things happened with recruitment and where I was going to go to school, and at one point I just ended up in front of a church and said ‘God whatever you want, let it be.’ (I’ve found) it’s always in God’s hands. And I really mean  that. God has a path and I  don’t know what it is, but  whatever it is  creates a much better future  than me trying  to plan it myself.

RM- Looking back on your life growing up, is this where you saw yourself ending up?

CN- I grew up in a law enforcement family. My dad did 30 years; he retired as a captain with the Philadelphia Police Department. My mom worked in the Philadelphia Public School System for a lot of years. When I was a little kid I was  going to be a policeman, fireman and in the military… I thought it was all going to be one. (laughs) I thought it would be one total job and that it would be so exciting. As a 6 year old, I thought ‘I’m going to wear this uniform for an hour and that uniform for an hour.’ I always had this vision and my vision was always the paddy wagon. The paddy wagon would always be the two biggest guys they could find that would go out there and if there was a problem, the paddy wagon showed up and things got taken care of. Either someone was protected or someone who was causing a problem got arrested. That, to me, was the epitome of public service and helping people. My mom always jokes, ‘There’s no way you were not going to be a cop. That’s all you wanted to be. You were focused and eventually one day you were going to end up in a police uniform.’

RM- How do you manage the pressure of being such an influential figure?

CN- I go back to the Bible. Really reading the Bible and going through the scriptures, realizing that God has a mission for all of us, and our job is to complete that mission. The Bible and the scriptures are very helpful in keeping me focused (on the fact) that this isn’t about me, this is about a bigger mission.

RM- What do you do for fun when you don’t have the uniform on?

CN- It’s family time; there’s a lot of kid time. My phone is always going; I’m always on call and every day of the week there are calls coming in that I have to be somewhere.  I have to balance the fact that there’s going to come a point where my kids are going off to college, so I make sure that any moment I have time to spend with them and my wife, we spend family time together. Because in the blink of an eye they are going to be gone. I also love any sports… Not watching, but playing them and being engaged doing it.

RM- What’s your favorite place that you ever traveled?

CN- Normandy. My wife and I took a trip to Europe and saw Normandy Beach. You can watch all the movies you want but until you’re sitting on that beach (the gravity of the events there don’t fully sink in). It makes Clearwater Beach look small.

RM- What music was playing the last time you drove somewhere?

CN-  It depends, if I have kids in the car I listen to Joy FM. If not I listen to alternative rock.

RM- What are you most proud of about your time thus far as the Pasco Sheriff?

CN- I think it’s two things. One is the community, and the other is the deputies. I think we’ve really built out a strong, positive relationship with the community where it has really gotten behind and worked together with the deputies. And I really think that it enhances the deputies’ partnership with the community. That’s why our motto is “We Fight As One”… everybody thinks it’s ‘we’ as in deputies and law enforcement, no. It’s ‘we’ as a community. It’s all of us together and if there’s one thing I can say I’m happy about, it’s the building of that partnership.

RM- Tell me about the last book you read or are reading?

CN- Change by Design by Tim Brown. It’s a book on design theory from the guys at IDEO (www.ideo.com). I’m just starting it now. We’re partnering up with JSOU – Joint Special Operations University. Two of us went last week and more of our people will be going in the next couple of weeks; they do a design theory class on Special Operations and a lot of things will apply to what we do. What we’re trying to do in the Sheriff’s Office is to think innovatively. Everyone thinks in law enforcement, we just go out and arrest people and that’s it. In reality, we’re hoping this organization turns into one of the most creative, innovative organizations out there. We can’t keep tackling the same issues the way we’ve always been tackling them. So we’ve partnered with University of South Florida, Pasco Hernando State College, St. Leo University, University of Texas, University of Pennsylvania and the Naval Postgraduate School.

RM- What do you mean you partner with them? What does that look like?

CN- With the Naval Postgraduate School, we are one of only five or six law enforcement agencies in the country that are working on a social network analysis project. We are on the cutting edge of how to fight crime where it’s not just responding, rather this is about networks. We’re picking up on who the most influential groups are, and ask ‘how do we influence the network?’ The partnership with USF is through the social network analysis project, but also through our forensics unit. Dr. Erin Kimmerle (is there) who is phenomenal. If we find a body and can’t identify who it is, she will come in with her forensics team and figure out the age, how they might have been killed, and they can reconstruct things. She’s incredible and one of the things we’re trying to work on with her is creating a forensics training facility where they can train this generation and the next generation of forensic investigators.

RM- What is your passion?

CN- My faith, my family and I love law enforcement. My faith is always going to be there. My wife, I’ll give her all the credit in the world. She never grew up in a law enforcement family so she had no idea what she was getting into. I grew up with my dad not being there on holidays or missing birthdays when things happen. And she never had that, so for her to come into this and I’m working midnights in Broward and the pressures we go through now, she’s very understanding and she wants to get involved. And I love law enforcement. I think we’re in challenging times right now and our profession is moving faster than it ever has before. When people say ‘what do you do for fun besides working out?’ (My response is) this is my fun. If my kids are playing on the swing set and I’m just sitting there, I’ll look on my phone and start reading up on new innovations in law enforcement. I’m blessed, we have a great staff and a lot of them are the same way. As a collective group we are people who really have a passion for what we do.

Another thing I’m passionate about is the family support network that we’ve started. It’s reaching out to family members of law enforcement. The military has done a good job talking about post traumatic stress, but the history of law enforcement is that when you’re done with your shift, drink Jack Daniels and you’ll be fine.

RM- Now that topic is really coming to the forefront. People are asking ‘what is the mental health, the mental capacity of our law enforcement officers?’ How can the public help?

CN- Even if you just walk up to a law enforcement officer and say ‘thank you for what you do,’ it means a lot. With intelligence-led policing, we worked with Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe at Temple University and a study found that 6% of criminals commit 60% of the crimes. We’re getting called out to the worst situations, so all day long for 12 hours, we’re dealing mostly with that 6% who aren’t very fond of law enforcement. We’re seeing the worst situations possible and going call to call to call. There’s no real break. There’s no real decompression. So when someone says ‘thank you Deputy I appreciate it,’ that catches a lot of people off guard because we’re so used to people going up to a scene and yelling at us. The military has done an unbelievable job dealing with post-traumatic stress and is learning quickly about how to decompress people who are coming back from overseas. In law enforcement we haven’t. How it’s been is, you finish your shift, and you go to “choir practice,” which is where you go and drink off your problems. Unfortunately “choir practice” created alcoholics which ruined careers and ruined families. These are things that this family support network is aiming to help, because in our profession suicide completion is high. Also, the children (of law enforcement) are going through a lot, especially now because they’re turning on TV and the first 5 minutes of the news shows people protesting in the neighborhood, screaming “I hate cops, kill cops.”  These children look at their fathers and mothers wondering what’s going to happen to them.

Another thing that people don’t usually recognize is that we deal with post-traumatic stress driving down the streets where we live. Most people will see a convenience store or gas station and to them, it’s just the gas station. For us, we see the gas station and we think ‘oh yeah there was a shooting there. I remember getting called to a robbery… There was blood…’ We are remembering the body that was lying on the ground. We remember. Our struggles are in our own communities where we live because we’re seeing the worst of the worst. Even off duty when we take our uniform off, there are still triggers. What people don’t realize is that when they see a law enforcement officer, he or she may have just come from a horrible call, or may be so mentally drained from everything they’ve seen. People forget about our deputies in jail. The deputies in the jail have 12 hours a day  with the inmates so they go through mental anguish all day, constantly being attacked.

So that’s something that we need to really work with our members and their families on. A lot of times law enforcement officers isolate  themselves because they’re dealing with all of these issues and for 12 hours they are on a very high alert level. They come home and they crash. This is what we’re trying to explain to  spouses, that this is why your spouse is going through these issues. We all struggle with the fact that we go home and just sit on the couch and we have to force ourselves to say ‘nope, I’m going to get up, I’m going to do something, and I’m going to get involved with the kids. I’m going to do something to take my mind off all of the issues that I’m dealing with.’

RM- What is available to the law enforcement officers for their mental health? Are there services like meditation or psychological services for decompression?

CN- We provide an 800 number to a mental health provider. The members and their families have the ability to call this number and get mental health treatment. But honestly what it comes down to is chiropractors, people who give massages, those types of things. That’s why it’s a big project that we really need community members to step in and help with. This is how they can help; this is how we can tie it together.

RM- What exists right now as resources through the family support initiative?

CN- We’ve done Spouses Academy for the past several years. In Spouses Academy, we bring in one of the largest Chaplin networks in this state. Those Chaplains are always available to the spouses. We also bring in guest speakers to explain what law enforcement officers go through and the stress that they’re under. That’s really helped out and families come back and say, ‘you know we were going through a lot, but now we recognize and are overcoming the challenges.’ The next thing we’re going to be doing is raising money for the Family Support Network to add more training and education so that the spouses are constantly engaged. One thing that’s nice is that businesses want to help. We’re working to connect the businesses to the spouses and the families.

RM- What are your thoughts on civilians carrying guns for their own protection?

CN- I’m in favor of it. I’m in favor of people being able to defend themselves. There are not enough law enforcement officers out there to protect you from every situation. Our country was founded on people defending themselves so if you’re under attack and you have to defend yourself, we always say defend yourself. We don’t want people living in fear.

RM- What are your goals with the Sheriff’s Office?

CN- The Family Support Network is one of the big goals. Another one is our social media presence. We’re going to expand our social media capacity, reaching out to the community. The more we can do for crime prevention, the better. If everybody would lock their car doors, we would dramatically reduce the amount of crimes in communities. We will go into communities and notice that people leave their car doors open and they leave the garage door open. Someone can be the victim three times within a month and we just say ‘hey why don’t you just lock your door?’ And they just say that they forgot. If everybody in Pasco locked their car doors we would dramatically reduce crime overnight. We’re getting a lot of kids from outside our community that are walking through neighborhoods and just lifting door handles. They tell us one out of ten will be unlocked, and in about every tenth unlocked vehicle they’ll find keys and/or guns. That’s why we tell people to secure your gun in your house when you’re not in your car.

Another goal is training. The crimes and issues that we’re dealing with, the very violent extremism, whether that’s radical Islam or the attacks on law enforcement, has within the past two to three years changed even more dramatically than it did after 9-11. So we’re training for that and getting the equipment for our members. What people had seen in Europe and in the Middle East we are now seeing in our own communities, so we’re preparing for that with constant training and retraining.

The other thing, which is big for Wesley Chapel, is that we recognize that Wesley Chapel and Land O Lakes are  growing tremendously. Our goal over the next several years is to get the funding to build a 4th District office in that area.

RM- If you could ask the public to do one thing to aid in their safety, what would you ask them to do?

CN- If there’s one thing you do at night, lock your car doors and shut your garage doors. Just do that one basic thing and that would reduce crime. We will get these criminals who are breaking into cars. We hear them on inmate phone calls and hear them saying that certain places are soft targets. So they know certain communities are soft targets to hit. If they know everybody locks their car in that community, it would reduce crime.

RM- What do you think your  law enforcement officers would want to say to the public right now? 

CN- The more our citizens wave to them and smile and say thank you, that’s really appreciated. I would also say our deputies would tell them that we are short-staffed. We’re probably roughly 200 people less than what our agency should have. We are here to protect you. We’re human beings. We shop at the same supermarket you shop at, our kids go to the same schools. We are in this together and we want to get rid of bad cops more than anybody else does.  We hire from the human race.  These are brothers, mothers, fathers, sisters.  We have high standards. If someone is acting inappropriately they face consequences.

To those that are critical toward law enforcement and to those who always say that things can be done better, I say join us. See what it’s like to work on midnight shift for months on end and you’ll see that we’re trying to do everything we can to protect the community.

RM- Law enforcement is being scrutinized right now for split-second reactions and impulses to protect themselves and to protect the community. There are videos on every news channel from people who have a phone, eager to film any altercation with law enforcement and splash it all over the Internet. It would appear that the public is holding law enforcement to a higher standard than they hold themselves. Do you think law enforcement officers should be held to a higher standard than civilians? 

CN- I think that we operate at a higher standard as a profession as a whole. We have educational requirements for promotion, we have a physical assessment every year to ensure our deputies can perform the duties of the job. I think the issue we’re dealing with right now is that people are rushing to judgment without getting all the facts. It’s no longer, getting all the evidence first and then finding out what exactly  happened. Within a 30 second clip or a 5 second clip people decide automatically who’s right, who was wrong and how it could have been done better. I ask the public to absolutely look at things from a different perspective and see if there is other evidence. Audio is great, video is great, but it is not the be-all end-all. There are things that are not caught.

RM- Do you think people as a whole trust law enforcement officers?

CN- As a whole I think yes. I think there’s a group that is very vocal, and they’re making it known that they don’t trust law enforcement. When you look at the problem it’s like a pyramid. Law enforcement represents authority and we represent  the government, but underneath there’s all sorts of social issues that either have to do with the healthcare system, educational system… there’s a whole mixture of issues that lie underneath in our society that have never been fixed. We are the tip of the spear; law enforcement officers represent authority, so the hostility is coming toward us.

We went on a warrant sweep on the west side of the county and we were picking up people and I’ll never forget this, it was myself and four others. We surrounded the house, knocked on the door and a little child answered, and he said ‘it’s the police; they are here to shoot us. They’re going to shoot us.’ We were in disbelief. So we got teddy bears with stickers and sat there with these kids. They were happy and by the time we left I think we made a positive influence.

RM- One could argue that the media is sensationalizing incidences with law enforcement to increase viewership and on the other hand one could argue that there is, in fact, a major issue within law enforcement’s use of authority and force. There are camps on both sides of this fence yet what remains is that it appears that law enforcement has become the target of extreme distrust and even hate from some groups in society. It’s becoming a really dangerous situation for everybody involved. What can you say is being done to ensure that this cycle doesn’t continue to get worse? For example, people are untrusting of law enforcement so they resist authority and act more aggressively; officers experiencing this aggression on a day-to-day basis may become more forceful in their reactions, and the cycle continues. 

CN- It really goes back to perception. It’s all about perception. There’s a perfect example that happened  on Bruce B Downs and 56. There was a woman who was shoplifting. The store said that they wanted her arrested, so we put her in handcuffs and she started resisting. How it would have ended, had she not resisted, was she would have been put in handcuffs and we would have checked to make sure she didn’t have any warrants. If she didn’t have any warrants she would have been given a notice to appear in court and she would have been let go. What happened was, they went to put handcuffs on her and she started fighting. She went down to the ground, started bleeding, and some guy comes out of the middle of nowhere. He pulled out his phone and said ‘I got you.’ After the deputy gets medical responders and does everything right, he looked at the guy and said ‘you can videotape all you want, I have it all right here on my camera.’ And I think it goes back to the fact that one, there are people out there who are filming these things because they want their five minutes of fame. They want to film something to say ‘oh I got you, I’m going to be the one who goes on TV and says how great I am because I filmed something.’  I think another part is that for some people they think there are no consequences in their lives, and we represent consequences. People grew up where everybody is getting a trophy, and then they find a world where not everybody gets a trophy and bad people go to jail, they resent law enforcement. Going back to the cycle and thinking of how does this calm down, how do we break the cycle?  I really think this is going to come back to community leaders across the board saying let’s sit down, everybody calm down; and it’s about us being open, being honest, and if we do something wrong we admit it.

RM- If you could put up a billboard and have it say anything at all, where would you put it and what would it say?

CN- I would put a sign on 75 Northbound and say ‘Pasco County, this is where the future is.’ I really think the future is coming here; you hear about all of this development and all these things coming in. We have to have optimism. To be a champion, you have to be optimistic. We want people coming out of Tampa saying that this is the place to come.

RM- 30 years from now, what do you want to be remembered for; what legacy do you want to leave?

CN- It’s all about team. This is not ‘what has Chris Nocco done as the Sheriff?’ This is what we have done as a community, and as a community we’ve come together. I’d say we’ve changed the perception of law enforcement and moved law enforcement to the future. I would hope people look back at the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and say that as a collective group, we’ve done an unbelievable job reaching out to the community and working together.

Sheriff Nocco cares deeply about his community, his deputies, his faith and his family. He closed out the interview saying:

“What I really want people to remember is that day in and day out, 365 days a year there are people working to protect them. Not everything is going to be perfect, there’s going to be bad times, there’s going to be horrible incidences, and there’s going to be great times. But always keep in mind; don’t be swayed by a 30 second clip. These people are doing everything they can to protect you. If there’s one thing I’d like people to take away it’s that we as a community fight as one. Everybody makes a difference; it’s all of us together.”

To make a difference today, please consider supporting the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.

To make a contribution or donate services to the Family Support Initiative please contact the Office of the Sheriff at (727) 844-7700.

To sponsor a canine or contribute to the canine association please contact Corporal Alan Wilkett at AWilkett@PascoSheriff.org