FDLE commissioner retires; DeSantis to pick next state police leader

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has found itself embroiled in several controversies in recent years.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Richard Swearingen testifies in 2019 before state lawmakers. His last official day will be Sept. 1.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Richard Swearingen testifies in 2019 before state lawmakers. His last official day will be Sept. 1. [ Florida Channel ]
Published March 25, 2022|Updated March 26, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — The head of Florida’s state police force announced his retirement on Friday, 15 days after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law giving him more authority over the commissioner’s replacement.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen, who has spent four decades with the agency and commanded it for the past eight years, sent an email to its roughly 1,900 employees Friday saying it was time for him to go. He said his last official day will be Sept. 1.

“While I have thoroughly enjoyed my 38 years with FDLE, the time has come for FDLE to move in a new direction,” Swearingen wrote in the email.

The decision to retire was Swearingen’s own, said DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw.

“We’re appreciative of his tenured service to the safety of all Floridians and look forward to bringing forward a new candidate in the near future,” Pushaw said in a statement. “We will share details as they become available.”

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is tasked with investigating public corruption, providing security for the governor and state Capitol complex and creating standards for police officers across the state. Local law enforcement agencies ask its agents to investigate when deputies and officers use force, including firing their weapons.

Since 1969, Florida’s governor had the authority to appoint the commissioner and the Cabinet authority to approve the choice, followed by Senate confirmation. The new law requires the commissioner to be approved by a majority of members of the Cabinet, plus the governor.

That means DeSantis and the two Republicans on the Cabinet, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, can choose Swearingen’s replacement without the approval of the Cabinet’s only Democrat: Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is running against DeSantis this year.

“The fact that the Republican-majority legislature just passed a law this session that Governor DeSantis immediately signed into law to further consolidate his executive appointments power ... and then mere weeks later Commissioner Swearingen departs out of the blue?” Fried said in a statement. “There are no coincidences when it comes to the DeSantis Administration.”

And under another bill passed by the Legislature this year, the department will assign 10 agents — hand-picked by the governor — to investigate allegations of election fraud.

In his letter to agents and employees, Swearingen said he’s “especially” proud of the department’s work processing of a backlog of rape kits, expanding officer use-of-force investigations and developing a threat assessment program to stop mass shooters, among other accomplishments.

In 2010, Swearingen also led the personal security detail watching over the family of then-Gov. Rick Scott, which the now- U.S. senator noted in a statement Friday.

“Florida is a safer state thanks to the hard work, leadership and dedication to public safety that Rick Swearingen has shown throughout his career,” Scott said.

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In 2014, Scott named Swearingen the state agency’s commissioner after forcing out his predecessor, former commissioner Gerald Bailey, without consulting members of the Cabinet.

Scott said at the time that Bailey voluntarily resigned. Bailey later said the former governor’s statement was “a lie.”

In recent years, the department has found itself at the heart of several controversies. In 2018, then-Attorney General Pam Bondi rebuked Swearingen for not investigating Scott’s unfounded claims of “rampant fraud” in his election to the U.S. Senate.

In 2020, the department made the unusual decision not to investigate criminal allegations Patronis, citing a “conflict of interests” because Patronis was a member of the Cabinet. The case was later handed off to the Leon County state attorney, who quietly closed the investigation without filing charges.

Later in 2020, the department was criticized for how it handled the investigation of former Department of Health analyst Rebekah Jones, a critic of DeSantis’ handling of COVID-19. Department agents served a warrant on her home and escorted her and her family out at gunpoint. She was later charged with a third-degree felony, accused of breaking into a state messaging system and encouraging people to “speak up.”

Since its inception in 1967, the department has reported to the Governor and members of the Cabinet, which currently includes Florida’s elected agriculture commissioner, attorney general and chief financial officer. The governor picked the commissioner, and at least three members of the Cabinet approved the choice. Then in 2003, the Cabinet was reduced from six members to three.

DeSantis has pushed for more control over the agency in recent years. This year, the Republican-controlled Legislature granted his wish when it passed a law requiring a majority vote of the Cabinet instead of an unanimous one.

The governor believes that the executive branch should have more power, he said on March 14, citing Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers.

“He would not have liked the fact that you have a Cabinet system of government where the executive power is splintered in certain areas,” DeSantis said of Hamilton. “For example, FDLE. The head of that agency is all four Cabinet members acting together. There is not actually one person who is accountable for FDLE.”

“Hamilton hated that,” he continued. “He thought there had to be one person who was accountable, one person who could make the decisions and you would have a very clear chain of command.”