MILTON — Here, we catch up with newly sworn in Santa Rosa County Sheriff Bob Johnson.
Why do you want to add resource officers to middle and elementary schools?
I used to be a resource officer at a middle school, so I know firsthand what it means to get a hold of kids to change their outlook. By the time they get into high school, they’ve already formed an opinion on law enforcement. It’s hard to talk on a one-on-one level in high school. They have preconceived notions. In sixth and seventh grade, when they have a positive interaction, they can say, “Cops are humans, too, and have jobs to do. They carry a gun (but) they see us as people.” That will carry through the rest of their lives and we won’t have adults with animosity toward law enforcement and can have positive interactions with law enforcement. That’s one of the biggest reasons. School safety (is the second). If somebody is going to do something bad at a middle school and see a marked patrol car, they might think twice.
How can you add these officers?
It’s a twofold plan. You can’t do one without the other. There are eight middle schools in the county so you need to hire eight officers. With the current starting pay, that won’t happen. Sheriff Hall this year didn’t ask for any positions because he knew he couldn’t fill them if he had them. We need to bring the starting pay up to where it’s comparable to Okaloosa and Escambia counties. (Potential deputies) will show more interest then, and we’ll ask for more positions to get into middle schools.
Does your family feel safer with you as sheriff?
I still go out, even as sheriff, on evening shifts and make arrests, write reports, write tickets. I’ve done that since I was hired and I’ll continue to do so as sheriff. The only difference is, for me now, I have 400 people working with me I’m responsible for and that weighs heavy on my mind. Even at home and going to bed, I know there are men and women that can lose their lives because of a job they’ve chosen to do. It’s a big responsibility I don’t take lightly. My wife knows as well and children, who are both adults. They know it’s a very important job. It’s an honor and I recognize that.
Do you want to serve as long as Sheriff Hall?
He was a four-term sheriff, the longest in Santa Rosa County. Everyone asks me how long I want to serve. I have 34 years now (in law enforcement) and, at end of this term, it will be 38 years. After the second, it will be 42. It all depends on my health. I love serving the citizens of Santa Rosa County. I love every minute. So when you say how long, it depends on my health, so God willing, hopefully, a lot longer.
Do you think changing county laws on alcohol will affect DUI rates?
I have one officer who has had 54 (driving under the influence arrests), so DUI is a problem, not just in Santa Rosa County, but all across the country. A lot of people don’t feel that it’s a big a deal, but I’d say they haven’t lost a family member to DUI. We go out of our way for DUI enforcement, and we’ll only continue. Relating that to alcohol laws loosening, I don’t think will make a big impact on DUI (arrests) going up. If Santa Rosa County went completely dry, you’ll drive over the county line (to purchase alcohol). Prohibition didn’t work in the United States. In loosening the ones around here, I would say we wouldn’t see a spike in DUI arrests.
Did Sheriff Hall give you advice?
What he told me just before swearing in is, “Never forget who you work for, and that’s the people of Santa Rosa County who voted you in office. That’s why the sheriff in place, why he has power, because people gave that to me.” He’s told me a lot of good advice over years but that’s one that sticks with me the most.