BROOKSVILLE — As a younger man, Hernando County's new sheriff had his sights set on science.
Al Nienhuis thought about becoming an engineer, maybe specializing in the high-flying field of aeronautics, and took some college classes toward that goal. But he didn't like the prospect of a desk job, and the adventures of law enforcement called him.
Nienhuis' decision to volunteer as an auxiliary officer for the Florida Marine Patrol would set him on a path to the state's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, then to the second-in-command at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, and now to the top spot at the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Nienhuis last week to serve the last two years of Sheriff Richard Nugent's term. Nugent was elected to Congress in November, and his resignation was effective Friday.
The appointment sparked controversy because Crist chose an outsider over Nugent's recommendation, Hernando Operations Chief Mike Maurer. Nienhuis has already appointed Maurer as his second-in-command.
On Thursday, the Times sat down with Nienhuis (pronounced NEEN-hice) in his shoebox-shaped office at the Pasco Sheriff's Office. The walls were already bare, his plaques and commendations stacked in moving boxes. In the wide-ranging interview, Nienhuis talked about what drew him to law enforcement, the politics of his appointment and how his time in Pasco prepared him for his new job.
Someone told us you are a member of Mensa (an international society of high-IQ individuals).
I'm a member, but I think one thing you realize is there's a lot of different levels of intelligence, and one test doesn't make you any smarter or less smart than anybody else. I enjoy math and science, which is a little bit ironic that I went into law enforcement.
When did you realize you wanted to go into law enforcement?
I heard about a program that the Florida Marine Patrol had for auxiliary marine patrol officers. Because my family owned a business, I had some freedom when it came to going to school and so forth, so I went to the auxiliary police academy in the mid '80s and volunteered with the Marine Patrol for about two years as an auxiliary patrol officer.
I went through the full police academy about two years after going through the auxiliary academy … and was a part-time Marine Patrol officer for about two years in the Tampa District Office. We did land patrol and water patrol, and I worked in a patrol boat from the Pinellas-Pasco line down to Manatee County, and all of Tampa Bay.
I truly loved it. It was a great job. Very rewarding and a lot of fun. Then my father passed away, we closed the business and within the next year or two I decided to go full time into law enforcement, and that's when I applied for the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco as a special agent. I started working in the Clearwater office in June of 1989.
You would stay with the division until 2001, working as a lieutenant in the division's Sarasota office and then as captain in the Fort Myers office. Is there a case or two you're most proud of?
There were several cases I worked as an agent that were pretty rewarding. We were a team, so it's hard to say that any one person, especially myself, was responsible for any particular case.
But when I did get to Fort Myers, we were part of a statewide gambling case. We did several simultaneous search warrants — we were a relatively small number of special agents and a sergeant — and we developed cases on bars in three different counties. I think it was a dozen or so search warrants we executed simultaneously. We got help from (the Florida Department of Law Enforcement) as well as other districts within Alcohol and Tobacco.
The agents I had working there did a great job. Anybody can tell you that doing one search warrant is a lot of work, but if you have several of them in three counties simultaneously it really becomes a logistical issue. I'm pretty proud of that.
It's not widespread, but we've seen a jab or two in comments on online stories where people question your street experience since you have never served as a road patrol deputy.
When I worked for Alcohol and Tobacco, we would do undercover work, vice work, lewd-and-lascivious investigations in bars. We would work the streets a lot for drug and alcohol violations in plain clothes. I worked drug cases, both managed them and worked undercover. I've had to wrestle people down to the ground. And in a patrol boat, you're out there by yourself. It might take an hour before backup arrives. I think those are just the naysayers who aren't happy with my appointment.
Tell us about your daily role as undersheriff in Pasco. How has that prepared you for the job in Hernando, especially since you'll face a steep learning curve as someone coming in from the outside?
The Sheriff's Office (in Pasco) has over 1,300 employees and well over 400,000 residents. There's obviously no two days that are the same. There are issues dealing with vice that sometimes I have to give direction on. There's dealing with property crime cases, major crime cases.
There's dealing with the media, dealing with personnel issues, both positively and negatively. There are issues with promotions and transfers that are on the positive side, and unfortunately when you have 1,300-plus people you do have some discipline issues you have to deal with, including termination. Probably the least fun part of my job is having to deal with that.
(I'm) working with the systems within the agency, trying to make them more streamlined, more efficient. I spend a lot of time on that, giving guidance. Like I said, no two days are the same. I can have a plan for the day and it very seldom ends up even close to what I plan, so I have to be very flexible.
You also oversee the detention center?
Most of the agency is within my chain of command. There's detention issues, too. There's medical issues we deal with on occasion. Obviously, there's contraband issues.
Fortunately we've been very blessed when it comes to escapes, we've only had a couple in 10 years, and both of them we were able to apprehend them in a fairly short period of time. But that is an issue you deal with, and people who are trying to escape, and making sure the people over there have the tools they need to help keep the good guys separated from the bad guys.
So that experience will help you in Hernando, where the Sheriff's Office took over operation of the jail during the past year.
Absolutely. It's difficult to work in the Sheriff's Office for 10 years and oversee the detention facility — I think now it goes over 1,400 inmates on occasion — and not run into most of the issues.
However, the person that Sheriff Nugent put in charge of the jail, Maj. Mike Page, he has forgotten more about detention and corrections issues than most people will ever know in their lifetimes, even those in the business. He has been in the business for over three decades, and there's nobody who knows more about it that I've ever met in my life. He's more of an asset up there than I would be with that particular issue, and I think we'll work very well together.
What do you think are your strengths as an administrator?
I think I'm a situational leader. I realize there are no cookie-cutter answers. I do consider myself analytical, and I think I have a reputation for thinking that way. I try not to get emotional when making decisions, because I think that can sometimes interfere with what's best for the citizens or the employees.
But at same time I have a real concern for the employees because I realize they are very, very dedicated to what they do, and it's definitely a sacrifice that they make. Public service is a sacrifice, and I definitely consider that in every decision that's made. You just can't do otherwise.
Was being a sheriff a career goal that you had, and if so when did you set that goal?
I enjoy serving as a leader, and as I went into supervision I found it to be very rewarding. When I was a captain in Fort Myers, I considered maybe leading a medium- or a large-sized agency, so it was something that I've been thinking about for probably the last 12 or 13 years, and Sheriff (Bob) White gave me the opportunity come up and be second in command, and this kind of seems to be the next step. It's the next challenge … and I'm looking forward to it.
A lot of Hernando residents and Sheriff's Office employees are disappointed Mike Maurer didn't get the job. You appointed him as chief deputy. What will you say to employees on Monday?
I think a lot of that I want to save for them, but I think the key, the underlying theme, will be serving the public. The Hernando Sheriff's Office has a great reputation, and we want to continue that and build upon it. The public perception of the Sheriff's Office is critically important. That is really the measure of how well you're doing, and I thing that's going to be the theme.
It may be difficult to answer this question, having spent just a little bit of time there so far, but do you foresee a reorganization for the department, minor or otherwise?
As I said, I'm situational. I have some ideas on some things I may want to change, but they are definitely not set in stone, and it's strictly looking at it from the outside looking in, and what few brief conversations I've had with Chief Maurer. It's going to take me a little while to definitively decide what, if any, changes will be made.
Sheriff Nugent is a big proponent of prevention programs, but a tight budget forced him to scale back, cutting DARE (a drug abuse education program for kids), for example. What are your thoughts on those kinds of programs and the role they play when money is tight?
I think they're important, but I think you have got to be reactive before you can be proactive. If you're very good at being reactive, with good response times and case clearance rates, then you can take what's left over with your resources and be proactive.
I think that there is not a single program that doesn't deserve scrutiny, especially when you have high unemployment and the economy in the state that it's currently in. That's one of my first goals — to look and see if they're operationally necessary to protect the citizens and to provide them that service that's absolutely necessary, and if not, then each one of them has to be prioritized, and we need to look at it very hard.
In Pasco, Sheriff White went through a fairly significant reorganization within the last couple years, and one thing you realize is that as long as you concentrate on those operationally necessary components, the agency will thrive, even though sometimes the process is a little bit trying.
The sheriff has been in the hot seat as budgets have gotten tighter, and things got a little ugly a couple of years ago as Sheriff Nugent sought to defend his budget when commissioners demanded cuts. What do you know about that history and Hernando politics in general, and how do you think you'll handle it when you're in that hot seat?
I think that in every county in the state, to one degree or another, there is a little bit of tension between the County Commission and the sheriff, and Pasco certainly is no exception. From what I've seen, although there has been some tension, the Hernando commissioners truly care about the citizens and their safety, and I know I do, and I think that will overcome any tensions that we have. We'll be able to work together, and that's not negotiable for me. I'm going to do everything in my power to work with them.
How do you feel about the transition from your role as a second-in-command to sheriff, which, as you've seen, has been a politically charged process from the start? You're a politician now.
I was telling a few people earlier that, you know, the roles you play have positive aspects and negative aspects, and I'm excited about the role of being the leader of a very, very well respected law enforcement agency, and even those things that might be a little uncomfortable, like being in the spotlight, I know it's part of the job, and it's part of being a leader. So I'm going to do my very best at that particular role.
Are you a lifelong Republican? Why?
I believe in less government. I believe in less taxes. Our citizens, they work very, very hard for their money. I think government has to be as efficient as they have to be in managing their money. And I think I have reputation of that here at the (Pasco) Sheriff's Office.
I think if you ask most people they'll say I'm very careful with the tax money to the point where I do frustrate people occasionally inside the agency, asking questions about whether we got quotes and whether we actually need something.
Tell us about your family.
I'm very, very proud of my family. Rhonda and I have been married 201/2 years now, and she still is the love of my life. It's not just rhetoric. She's been a huge advocate of mine. She has followed me in my career from here to Fort Myers and back, and she's always been a very good person to go to get good advice that she truly believes is in my best interest, and I cherish that.
My oldest is Shauna. She's 18 and getting ready to graduate from Grace Christian School in Hudson. She's at or near the top of her graduating class. She's going to (Pasco-Hernando Community College) and doing very well there.
My middle daughter, Amanda, is 15. She's also dual-enrolled at the same schools and also does exceptionally well. One of the proudest moments of my life, as well as one of the scariest, is this last summer she went to Ireland on a mission trip with Teen Missions International, and that's a big step for a 15-year-old girl. I'm proud of her courage to do that.
My youngest is Alyssa. She's 11, and she's also the apple of Daddy's eye. She also goes to Grace Christian.
Do you have a message for Hernando residents?
I'm excited about being their sheriff, and I can promise them I'm going to work very, very hard to win their trust and confidence.
I'm also proud of being the leader of the members of the Sheriff's Office, the deputies, both law enforcement and detention, and all the civilian members, and I'm also going to work very hard for them.
Although my history and experience are important, I think what is really going to be important is my performance. I do realize that I could have the greatest resume in the world, but if I don't do a good job for the citizens, it doesn't mean anything. I ask that people give me a fair chance. Give me an opportunity. It is definitely my goal to be a great sheriff.
What about running in the 2012 election?
I think that's definitely something that you consider. I guess my goal is to do such a great job that … how can I put this? I think the members of the Hernando Sheriff's Office could use continuity, and I'll do a good job, and if the citizens feel that I'd make a great sheriff in the next term, then it would be hard for me not to step up to the plate and be willing to serve. But obviously that's yet to be determined.
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.