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Meet the New FSA President, Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper

September 07, 2023

At the recent Florida Sheriffs Association Summer Conference, FSA Deputy Executive Director of Operations Matt Dunagan sat down with new FSA President, Nassau County Sheriff Leeper. The two discussed Sheriff Leeper’s career and what drew him to law enforcement. To learn what our 100,000-plus honorary members wanted to hear about, we asked them to submit questions for Sheriff Leeper — and received some great responses. Here is the first part of their insightful conversation. 

Matt Dunagan: So how did you get started in law enforcement? What was your passion to begin your career at Florida Highway Patrol?  

Sheriff Bill Leeper: Well, believe it or not, my dad was a police officer for the Fernandina Beach Police Department in the late 1950s and early 1960s, so he would come home and tell us some stories about what he did during his shift. And I guess that's where I initially got interested in law enforcement. After I graduated from Fernandina Beach High School, I was drafted by the New York Mets and played professional baseball in their minor league system for a few years. I eventually had trouble with the curve and then came back home and got a real job.   

The sheriff at the time, Sheriff Herb McKendree of Nassau County, sponsored me to go through the police academy in Nassau County. At that time, I graduated from the Academy in Fernandina Beach, but the police department was not hiring and the Nassau County Sheriff's Office was not hiring. I looked into being a marine patrol officer in Florida, but after I applied for that, they had a hiring freeze on. So, my dad said, “Why don’t you put in an application with the Florida Highway Patrol,” so I did that in 1976 and started the Academy with FHP in January of 1977. After that I was assigned to Miami.   

Coming from Fernandina to Miami is a big culture shock, but it really exposed me to a lot more than if I had gone to a smaller county. I got a lot more experience then eventually transferred back to Jacksonville. I worked with FHP for the next 35 years. During the last 18 of those, I was a public information officer for FHP for nine counties in Northeast Florida. So, I traveled around quite a bit before I retired in 2012 as a captain.   

During that time, I was elected to the Fernandina Beach City Commission and subsequently elected mayor for two terms, which allowed me to learn about how government works in some of the bureaucracy that seems to get bogged down in time. So that prepared me, and I ran for Sheriff after I retired and got elected in 2012. Initially I became a member of the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches Board of Directors, eventually being elected chair. I also became a member of FSA's board of directors as a representative District 2, which allowed me to get more involved in the Florida State Association and after a few years, I was elected vice chair of the board and then kind of moved up into leadership positions and to being sworn in as president, which really humbled me. I am honored and grateful to be sworn in as 101st president of the Florida Sheriffs Association.  

MD: We had many sheriffs who were troopers and then one day elected sheriff. I'd be fascinated to know what some of the things were that you found most rewarding. As a trooper, we talked to Sheriff Crawford, and he loved the idea of no county lines and being able to work across multiple jurisdictions. What did you find most enjoyable during your career as a trooper?  

Sheriff Leeper: The people you meet over the years, being able to help people. There are times where you work some serious injury crashes or fatal crashes and must inform family members that someone they love and care about has been killed in automobile crash, which is very, very hard to do. But I've done that many times, too many times.  But we are trying to prevent things like that, not only through enforcement, but through education and making sure that people drive safely because it is usually the most dangerous thing we do every day.  

MD: And now that you are the sheriff, you've been elected three times. What made you initially decide to run for sheriff in 2012?  

Sheriff Leeper: When I grew up in Nassau County, I knew the history of the Sheriff's Office. And at that time, it, in my opinion, was not well regarded, not only within the communities in Nassau County but also with other law enforcement agencies. And I wanted to try to see if I could make that change, the culture within the agency. And after I was elected, to be honest, it was like stepping back in time. The vehicles had high mileage, so the technology was lacking resources. The buildings we were in were mold infested and had leaky roofs, and things that you need to fix, but you can't do it all at one time, so you had to prioritize things and over the next several years, get things done.  

MD: Well, you've certainly been able to get those things done for the Nassau County Sheriff's Office. Have you found that having that background as both the City Commissioner and Mayor helped you because you know to get those things done, you need to have a pretty good working relationship with your county commissioners. Has that other political career helped you to address the issues with your County Commission to get the funding you need?  

Sheriff Leeper: It did help. Law enforcement is not supposed to be political, because you're supposed to keep everyone safe, but the sheriff is elected. So, it is political. You must know how to navigate and deal with other people that you may not agree with and try to find something in common that you can work with, and I've been lucky. Growing up there, I knew a lot of the county commissioners initially. My brother was a county commissioner, so we didn't agree on everything, but a lot of things we did, he was the Fire Chief in Fernandina at one time. So, I just work with the commissioners, and I let them know that public safety should be a priority in a community where you want people to move to. Nobody's going to move to an area that's unsafe. Businesses aren't relocating to an area that's not safe. So, if you can prioritize public safety, that's going to attract more people, more businesses. It's going to allow you to do more things within your community than you want to.  

You can listen to the full interview with new FSA President, Sheriff Leeper, on the podcast here. We discuss the biggest challenges facing law enforcement today and why serving in a law enforcement position is an admirable endeavor.  Sheriff Leeper shares his goals as FSA president, and we also learn about a few of his secret talents outside of being a sheriff. 

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