The voice of law enforcement in Palm Beach County seeks to make history
If Ric Bradshaw is re-elected this year to his fifth term as sheriff of Palm Beach County, it will be a historic decision. It will put the 71-year-old official on track to become the longest-serving sheriff in county history, a distinction he would hold come 2023, when he would break Sheriff Richard Willie’s record of 18 consecutive years. A report last April indicated he had already raised more than $77,725 in his re-election bid—before he even formally announced his decision to run.
A married father of three and a devout dog lover, Bradshaw has enjoyed a 50-year career in law enforcement that has included chief of police of West Palm Beach. He was sworn in as sheriff of Palm Beach County in 2005, overseeing a department that now employs 4,200, along with 5,000 volunteers across six departments. Bradshaw is an especially vocal and busy sheriff, speaking at functions and panels, recording bulletins and safety tips for YouTube, appearing at the scenes of crimes for media interviews. He keeps a drum-tight schedule—I had exactly 30 minutes carved out for this conversation, booked several weeks in advance. He speaks eloquently on most topics, though he demurs on matters of gun violence and access to assault weapons: “How these laws come about is not up to me,” he says. “I enforce them; I don’t make them.”
If that sounds like a calculated answer—a dodge, perhaps—Bradshaw has earned the right to feel wary about how he comes off in the press. In his estimation, his office has been burned too many times by inaccurate reporting. “[The media takes] a story, and they enflame it, and they don’t necessarily get the facts straight,” he says. “Sometimes it’s because everybody wants to be first, rather than get it right. And then when they try to backtrack it … you see two lines of correction. We’ve seen it several times. We don’t mind giving the news out, and being part of the news; we just ask people to get it right, and don’t try to make it sensationalized. There’s enough sensation just on the facts themselves.”
When it comes to law enforcement in Palm Beach County, the buck invariably stops with Bradshaw, who has been criticized for everything from his handling of Jeffrey Epstein’s work release to his aggressive pursuit of gangs such as MS-13.
He’ll have more reasons than ever this year to defend his record. Because of a recent decision by the Florida Supreme Court, the formerly nonpartisan sheriff’s election will now run on partisan lines, and he’ll have to win both a primary and a general election. At least three candidates have announced challenges, but in terms of both fundraising and name recognition, Bradshaw is the distant front-runner, and he endeavors to be above the fray.
“I don’t make decisions based on politics at all,” he says. “Regardless of what the election system is, my decision-making process and how I do business won’t change.”
How does the size of Palm Beach County increase your responsibilities—to police a region from Juno Beach all the way to Boca?
It doesn’t really increase the responsibilities; it just increases the size of your budget, because you have a large expanse to cover. We’ve got 2,500 vehicles, but because you’re traveling a great distance, you use millions of gallons of gas every year. Not to mention the fact you have to tailor your response to the segment of people you’re policing. We have the richest people, probably on the face of the earth, that live in Palm Beach. And you have some of the poorest people that live in the Glades.
How has law enforcement changed during your tenure here?
No. 1, the amount of territories we cover as far as cities. We’ve merged with almost 12 cities since I’ve been sheriff—Royal Palm Beach, all of the police departments in the Glades, Lake Worth. We just merged two more departments. That has considerably changed in terms of being able to go into those cities and make an impact. Technology is probably the biggest change. When I got here, they were working with 1970s technology. Right now, we’re probably the most technologically advanced sheriff’s office in the southeast.
What are some of those advancements?
Computers, in-car cameras, in-car printers, the Fusion Center that we run, because we’re in charge of homeland security from Martin County to Key West, how we gather our intelligence information. We just started a Real Time Crime Center modeled after NYPD, where we tie into cameras, license plate readers—the technology is as good as you can get to provide the deputies with the best decision-making process.
Do you have specific success stories from any of these programs?
We tied into a camera in Lake Worth where we watched a guy break into a house, take the items, put them out the window on the ground. When he got outside, he put them into a bag, and while he was walking down the street, we were able to come in there and arrest him, because we knew right where he was, and directed the units there. That’s how technology can put you into the Real Time Crime Center situation, rather than reactive.
Have any cases had a significant impact on you?
There’s a lot of them. The most recent one was Christmas Eve , when a couple of gang guys coming out of the Wellington Mall tried to shoot one of our officers that were going to arrest them on murder charges, and he killed one of our police dogs. The dog gave his life to save the deputy. That was tragic in itself, and No. 2, it’s Christmas Eve. That was not a good night.
When you deal with grisly cases, are you able to disconnect when you’re off the clock?
You never disconnect. You’re always thinking about it in one form or fashion; you just don’t try to dwell on it for too long, and get on to something else. It just comes with doing the job for 50 years. You learn how to separate yourself after a while.
How often do officers have to fire their weapons?
Very far and few between. I don’t know how many officer-involved shootings we’ve had this past year, but it’s far less than we’ve had in years past. There was one year we had 14. One year we had four in one month. But you never know what the situation is. You never know how many times somebody’s going to try and shoot you, or try to stab you. Sometimes it comes in bunches; hopefully it doesn’t happen for the whole year. The last thing we want to do is shoot anybody.
The last one we had, we were arresting some people who were in a gang, MS-13, who were involved in narcotics activity, and he shot our deputy in the face. Other than the military, this is the only profession in the world where, when you leave in the morning and kiss your wife goodbye, you don’t know if you’re coming home.
Can it be a traumatizing thing for an officer to fire his or her weapon?
There’s no doubt. That’s why part of the system, when an officer fires his gun, is he’s placed on administrative leave, which means we’re giving him a chance to get his thoughts together, and then he goes and sees the psychologist before he comes back so they can have a talk and make sure that if he needs some more time off to process this, and get his mind right, then we allow that opportunity.
What poses the biggest threat in the county right now? Where are your resources being spent the most?
It’s all about gang activity. Gangs are responsible for stealing cars, robbing banks, identity theft, robberies, narcotics dealing. They’re the ones that drive the violent crime, and crime in general, down here.
For most people who live in nice communities in, say, Boca Raton, it might never occur to them that there’s this other world out there.
And you’ve got people in Palm Beach that live a somewhat sheltered life. But that doesn’t mean they can’t get touched by it. The gangs do identity theft, and anybody can be a victim of identity theft. And you don’t always live in the little cocoon of your neighborhood. You’ve got to go to shopping centers and drive out here on the streets. Nobody’s really immune from the gang situation no matter where you live. That’s why it’s one of our top priorities.
What part of county law enforcement is underfunded, and needs to expand?
We need more personnel. We’re probably in the neighborhood of 75 to 100 deputies short of where we should be. I got five deputies in the budget last year. We need to ramp up the number of deputies, because we’re handling probably 600,000 more calls now than we did in 2006, with not a significant increase in the number of deputies able to respond to the calls for service.
Do you love this job?