OKEECHOBEE — Sheriff Noel E. Stephen is the first sheriff in the history of Okeechobee County to ever run unopposed for the office of sheriff. He was surprised when the man who planned to run against him did not at least run as a write-in candidate, but he could not say he was unhappy about it, because now he can concentrate on other things, such as dealing with COVID-19, his budget and plans for the new jail.
Sheriff Stephen believes he was unopposed due to a combination of things. “I feel that in the society we are in today, nobody really wants to take on that burden and with the epidemic now, that makes it worse. I feel like I have a really good team here, and I feel like I’ve got the trust of the community, the county, the citizens. I’m still a young man with ideas and things to do,” he said. He believes these things together combine to give the community a lot of faith and trust in him and his team.
In Okeechobee, Sheriff Stephen said he feels blessed to have all positions filled at this time. The counties surrounding Okeechobee are not so lucky, he said. “They are all feeling the attrition we have historically had from our men and women going from us to Martin County and from Martin County to Palm Beach County and Palm Beach County to Broward seeking more money. It’s getting more difficult now than it has been in the past to fill those positions and find someone to be a deputy sheriff for $36,000 a year and be under the scrutiny here and have a target on your back bigger than it’s ever been in my 34-year career as what it is today.”
Young people are still joining the department, and he feels it is considered a prestigious job amongst the community. “We are fortunate to have young men and women who grow up and want to be cops,” he said. “I feel for the next generation, because I don’t know that is going to continue with everything that’s happening. It’s going to be a struggle.”
He feels things have changed in the years since he went into law enforcement, and society as a whole has changed.
“Many people do not know how to handle their anger. Sadly, they are so quick to resort to violence. When I started in this profession 34 years ago, cops were being killed by people who wanted to get away with murder or had committed murder, something like that. Now, people are doing it just because they got stopped, and they are upset because they got a $100 traffic ticket. I still want to teach my deputies to be kind and courteous as we can be, but it’s scary. Some of them are scared. I’m raising kids and making cops out of them.”
He went on to say he believed the killing of George Floyd which spiked off the recent protests was wrong and was definitely murder. “Those men didn’t have any right to do that to that individual — no matter what he may have done. Once he was in cuffs, he was under control. Get off of him! Those few make it bad for all the rest of us, but they haven’t spoiled the whole bushel. There’s waaay more good cops than there are bad cops.”
One of the programs the sheriff would like to bring to fruition during this term in office is the Explorer Program. “It’s definitely a ground to build and grow candidates for the future,” he said. Right now, he uses the auxiliary program to hire young men and women who think they want to be an officer, he explained. He puts them through there and then will send them to school. From there, he will pick those who stay in the field. They have to be at least 19 in order to go to the academy.
Beginning next year, there will be some changes in the sheriff’s office, particularly in the command staff. Chief Gary Bell will be retiring after 34 years with the OCSO. His wife, Michele, will be retiring soon after, but she said it won’t be immediately after. She wants to give him a little time to get things organized for their move to Live Oak before she hangs up her hat. “Between the two of them, there is 60 years of experience going with them,” said the sheriff.
The sheriff’s secretary, Connie Curry, will be retiring in January, after more than 35 years with the department. Kay Schoonmaker is retiring after about 35 years as well. There will be some attrition happening within the department, opening some key positions which will “let some of the younger folks grow,” he said.
The sheriff has a few things he would like to see happen during this term. One of the biggest projects is the jail expansion, which he said has been huge. He is thankful not to have the election looming over his head, because now he can concentrate on the pandemic and keeping his employees healthy and working and servicing the community. He said it just felt wrong somehow for the sheriff to go out and put up signs about voting for him while people were dealing with COVID-19. He was very glad he no longer has to worry about that.