skip to content

Our Media



Meet the New FSA President: Sheriff Al Nienhuis

August 31, 2022

At the recent Florida Sheriffs Association Summer Conference, FSA Deputy Executive Director of Operations Matt Dunagan sat down with new FSA President, Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis. The two discussed Sheriff Nienhuis’ career, what drew him to law enforcement and his priorities for this year. To learn what our 100,000-plus honorary members wanted to hear about, we asked members to submit questions for Sheriff Nienhuis — and received some great responses. Here are some highlights from their insightful conversation.

Matt Dunagan: I’m looking forward to asking you these questions from our honorary members. The first one is, when did you know you wanted to go into law enforcement as a career?

Sheriff Al Nienhuis: You know they say the good Lord works in mysterious ways, and it's certainly no exception when it comes to my law enforcement career. It was three different things that impacted my decision.

Number one, my uncle back in the 1960s. He was actually a deputy sheriff in Kent County, Mich., in the Grand Rapids area, and as a little boy growing up, I remember hearing stories about that. Unfortunately, he died when I was fairly young in an off-duty accident, but that planted the seed of going into law enforcement. And I had a friend whose father used to work in Albany, NY, and hearing stories about his dad and the theme of being the good guys – that always intrigued me a little bit.

I started volunteering as a Florida Marine Patrol auxiliary officer, and I loved it so much I got fully certified as a law enforcement officer and started working for them part-time. And then a couple years later I actually went to work full time with the state of Florida with the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, so I kind of eased into it.

MD: I think our next listener-submitted question kind of dovetails off of that – How did you begin your career in law enforcement? Was there a time when you gave some thought to running for sheriff?  I know you were the undersheriff for many years at the Pasco Sheriff's Office.

SHERIFF NIENHUIS: It was one of those things that I think kind of materialized over time. As I moved up with the state of Florida, I ended up in Fort Myers as a captain with the division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco. And I thought that someday I might want to be the equivalent of a CEO in some sort of law enforcement agency with state law enforcement or a city police department or sheriff's office.

And about that time, Bob White, who was my sheriff for 10 years, called me up and said he was thinking about running for sheriff in Pasco County. It was about a two-hour drive but for several months I helped him with his campaign, and that kind of got me to the point where I was thinking maybe the equivalent of a CEO is a sheriff. And I realized then that sheriffs’ offices are very unique in their ability to serve the citizens working for the state.

MD: You were appointed sheriff, and then you decided to run. Running for office is no easy task, and if you're a law enforcement officer, you show up every day to do your work. What was that like?

SHERIFF NIENHUIS: I grew up in a family business and one thing I say when I speak publicly is that I think everybody should own their own business at least once in their life. And everybody should run for political office at least once in their life. I think if people did more of that, there would be less complaining in the world.

It is very, very difficult. It's very demanding on your time. It's a lot harder than people think to run for any office. And I have the utmost respect even if my political philosophies are 180 degrees from an individual – the fact that they put their name in there and they got in the ring, took those blows, shows that they deserve respect even if I don't necessarily agree with them politically.

So yes – it can be very difficult but it can also be very rewarding. And it is verification that the public appreciates what you’re doing. It's the ultimate performance evaluation.

MD: So, you’re running the sheriff’s office – you’re a leader of that office. What advice would you give our listeners when it comes to dealing with conflict or crisis which we all have to deal with on almost a daily basis?

SHERIFF NIENHUIS: That's a difficult question that we could spend hours talking about, but I think, generally speaking, the first thing is discernment. Is it a crisis, or an issue that needs to be dealt with immediately? And most of them are not. There are situations like mass shootings that you have to respond to much differently than you have to for most situations. In the vast majority of those situations, particularly for the citizens, one of the biggest things is not to be impulsive and react too quickly.

I think a lot of the issues that we deal with, it’s often the result of people being reactionary and impulsive, and not stepping back and thinking about it. And even in some of the more emergency-type issues that we deal with, where you have to react quickly, sometimes even taking two or three seconds to take a breath and think about what’s the best way to handle this is important. It's very easy in the middle of a crisis to sometimes be reactionary and make a really bad decision.

And when I have time, I lean on my command staff a lot and I think most sheriffs do that. They learn very quickly that their command staff are a wealth of information and often come up with ideas you never thought of, and any of us who think that we have all the answers are sadly mistaken. You find that out very quickly – if you’re a leader, you don’t have all the answers, and people love to have input and give advice.

MD: When you’re dealing with lots of conflict and stress, coming out of the pandemic, many things have been mentally taxing on all of us, especially for law enforcement officers. Are there certain things you’re doing in your sheriff’s office that you feel are hopefully helping the stress your deputies and staff are under?

SHERIFF NIENHUIS: Yes, and that's a difficult question to answer because every person reacts differently to stress and every person reacts differently to things you put in place to try to help those individuals. We have a smorgasbord, for lack of a better term, of things that are available to them.

If there is a particular incident that we may be concerned about, oftentimes when you're dealing with a child death or something like that, we try to have them group up with their peers and sometimes even bring people from outside the agency who are in law enforcement. This means they don’t necessarily have any affiliation with them so they can talk freely. Sometimes you want to talk to your partner or somebody you work with, and sometimes you’d prefer to talk to someone who knows what you’re going through, but is somewhat removed from the agency.

We also have an employee assistance program and a clinic for physical well-being because you can't really separate those two. Obviously if you're not doing well physically, it's hard to be mentally healthy, and so we have a clinic that our people can go to, and it’s just sheriff’s office employees. There’s a doctor there that they become very comfortable with.

All of those things are pieces of the pie that help as best we can to keep our people mentally and physically healthy and ready to do the job.

MD: Now that you are the president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, what are your priorities? What are some of the things you’d like to see this association tackle this year?

SHERIFF NIENHUIS: Well, I think there's probably three or four things. Some of them are going to be more reactionary things and some of them are going to be proactive.

I think one of the things we do every year is provide input on issues that impact the safety of our communities, and so that's very important to make sure that the Legislature and our citizens know how we stand on particular issues that may come up that could impact law enforcement and our ability to keep the peace in the counties.

We have a brand-new sheriff's office coming online over the next few years in Miami-Dade County, and I think it's important for the sheriffs and the FSA to provide as much support as we can to that newly forming office of sheriff and issues that are going to come up. It's going to be a huge task for the FSA, as well as every sheriff in the state of Florida, to provide as much support as we possibly can, and not just in those times when the sheriff needs immediate assistance. I think that's one of the best things about the FSA as well as our fellow sheriffs – they're the only ones who truly know what you're going through, and getting advice from them and getting advice from the FSA is something that's going to be very important to that new sheriff.

And lastly, something very near and dear to my heart is technology and DNA.  I think if we can get some of the technology put in our booking areas in jails that we’ll allow DNA to be put into the system. One, it's going to help us to solve crimes quicker and two, it's going to relieve the Florida Department of Law Enforcement from doing very routine testing.

Because right now it can take a long time to get evidence depending on how serious the crime is. And so, if they can free up those resources, I think that's going to be exciting and hopefully we'll be able to accomplish that in the next year.

MD: Our final question is something a listener submitted who I believe is either a fan of the TV show The Walking Dead or the movie World War Z. In a zombie apocalypse, how long would you last?

SHERIFF NIENHUIS: Well, that’s a good question, Matt. I watch The Walking Dead with my wife and one of my daughters when my daughter comes over – that’s their show to watch, Fear the Walking Dead, so I’ve kind of been forced to watch it. Of course, your first reaction is, “That could never happen,” but then you start thinking about it. I think the first thing I would do is make sure that I don't interact as closely with those zombies as some of the characters on the show do, because, why do you get close to them?

There’s usually a set of good guys and a set of bad guys and then the zombies, and I would quickly align myself with the good guys and try to get a large group of them together. I think if I did those two things, I’d probably last quite a while. I don’t know, I am getting older, so I don’t know how well I could fight those zombies compared to 20 years ago. But hopefully I would fight a lot smarter and be able to survive as long as most people in that particular situation and not succumb to a zombie bite and turn into a zombie.

MD: We've been dealing with a lot in our nation over the last several years, so hopefully none of that's coming in the future. But we've got a great year ahead during your presidency.

SHERIFF NIENHUIS: We've had a lot of great presidents, and Sheriff Bobby McCallum is just the last. I’m going to do my best to not let them down, because I have some really big shoes to fill.

Stay Informed with FSA

Since 1893, the Florida Sheriffs Association has been committed to fostering the effectiveness of the Office of Sheriff through leadership, innovative practices, legislative initiatives, education and training. For more information about what’s next for sheriffs in Florida, visit our newsroom or subscribe to FSAcast, the official podcast of the Florida Sheriffs Association.

You can listen to the full interview with new FSA President, Sheriff Nienhuis on the podcast here.