LARGO — Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has been named sheriff of the year by the National Sheriffs' Association.
The Ferris E. Lucas Sheriff of the Year award is given to an active sheriff "who has made outstanding contributions to law enforcement and the criminal justice profession, demonstrates exceptional service to his or her community and has contributed to the betterment" of the association, which represents 3,000 elected sheriffs.
"He's one of the smartest, most dedicated, honest people I've worked with in my life," said the association's executive director, Jonathan Thompson, after the announcement was made Tuesday.
"He's got depth, he's got knowledge, experience. He's got personality. He's humble and is always effective."
The award, now in its 24th year, is named after a former president and executive director of the association. A group of about 25 sheriffs, past award recipients and representatives from partner organizations picked Gualtieri from about 50 nominees.
Gualtieri, 57, said he was flattered to be recognized, particularly by his fellow sheriffs.
"When your peers, your colleagues, are the ones that are recognizing you ... that has some special meaning to it," he said.
Gualtieri has held the top law enforcement job in Pinellas County since 2011. He served as chief deputy when then-Gov. Rick Scott elevated him to the top job to succeed former sheriff Jim Coats, who left before his term was up to care for his ailing wife. Gualtieri, who was already running for sheriff, was elected in 2012, then reelected in 2016.
During his eight-year tenure, Gualtieri opened Safe Harbor, an emergency shelter to house the homeless who would otherwise have been jailed for minor offenses. He also started a pre-arrest diversion program for adults facing certain misdemeanor charges.
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He's also active in community organizations including Boys and Girls Clubs of the Suncoast and the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board.
Gualtieri has gained prominence beyond Pinellas over the past year. He led talks with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to develop a policy that allows local law enforcement to hold undocumented immigrants accused of crimes in the county jail for the federal agency.
The sheriff made national headlines last July when he said Florida's stand your ground law precluded his agency from arresting a man who shot and killed another man in a dispute over a parking spot. Prosecutors, however, later charged Michael Drejka in the fatal shooting of Markeis McGlockton.
Gualtieri was appointed to lead a state commission tasked with investigating last year's mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The commission recommended changes to improve school safety statewide, and Gualtieri pushed its controversial recommendation to arm teachers.
His law enforcement career started in 1982 as a detention deputy at the Pinellas County jail. After a brief stint with the now-defunct Dunedin Police Department, he returned to the Sheriff's Office and served in several units. He gained a reputation for his high work ethic and attention to detail as a detective in the narcotics unit, working wiretap cases with a Drug Enforcement Agency task force.
He left the agency in 1998 to pursue his law degree at Stetson University College of Law, then went into private practice at a labor law firm. In 2006, he returned to the Sheriff's Office as general counsel. He became second-in-command in 2008, marrying the duties of chief deputy with those of the general counsel.
Thompson said Gualtieri's advocacy not only for his agency, but for law enforcement agencies across the country, made him a standout for the award.
"That's what's important: the matter of selflessness not just about protecting his men and women in uniform," Thompson said, "but also working to protect all the members of law enforcement across the country."
Contact Kathryn Varn at email@example.com or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.