As well as being a tough cop, Lake County Sheriff Peyton Grinnell also has a wide smile and wicked sense of humor. The video his department shot this past summer, their answer to the national police/firefighter lip-sync challenge, has more than three million YouTube views.
Plus, the sheriff is a champion ballroom dancer, winning the 2010 Lake County Educational Foundation’s dancing with the stars competition.
“I won with the cha-cha and the foxtrot,” he says with a straight face.
Elected to the Sheriff’s office in 2017, Grinnell grew up in Eustis and Leesburg.
“I didn’t like school very much,” he admits. “They had a program that allowed you to get out early and work during junior and senior year. I worked for Publix, and when I graduated in 1986, I worked with them full time. But I was just spinning my wheels and needed some direction.”
He joined the U.S. Marine Corps – and found his direction – serving from 1986 to 1991 with deployments in Operation Just Cause in Panama, and Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the Middle East.
Returning to the States, he married Jennifer, his high school sweetheart who was attending George Washington University on a swimming scholarship. He waited tables and made popcorn in movie theaters, eventually attending Northern Virginia Community College and receiving an associate degree in criminal justice.
The couple returned to Central Florida and Grinnell graduated from the Florida Law Enforcement Academy.
“I was hired by the sheriff’s office, and it’s just been a blessing all the way,” the former chief deputy under Sheriff Gary Borders says’.
One of the questions the sheriff is frequently asked is about the jurisdiction boundaries.
“If you’re from a state with a Highway Patrol, like Florida, then the sheriff is the chief law enforcement office of the county,” he says.
The sheriff has jurisdiction county-wide. Municipalities are restricted to their city limits.
“I swear in every police chief in the county as a deputy sheriff, so that they can authorize their officers to assist us,” he says.
In Lake County, the sheriff’s 740 staff (not counting volunteers) are divided into three main categories: law enforcement, the county jail and the courts. One of the first things Grinnell did when elected was to institute a new mission statement: “To serve people, support our communities and safeguard our quality of life.”
He has high praise for his staff, and also for the Citizens on Patrol volunteers. They help with patrols but also with many of the mundane administrative tasks such as filing, classifying fingerprints and shredding documents.
“We’re short-staffed,” Grinnell says. “So, something that would tie up a deputy, a broken-down vehicle on the side of the road, Citizens on Patrol can take over that scene so the deputy can go to something that’s more pressing.”
“We’re 53 positions less than we were in 2008,” he says with concern.
Grinnell also is concerned with recruiting and retaining qualified deputies. “There are six agencies that are paying more for their officers than our department,” he says. “A Lake County deputy can go next door to Orange County and make $11,000 more a year. I want to make sure that we’re competitive in the job market,” he says, citing the county’s rapid growth and rising costs.
Funded solely by county property taxes, the sheriff’s budget has to be flexible. The mandate to put a law enforcement officer in every Florida school this year took additional funding. Together with the school board, county commission and police chiefs, the requirement was met.
The county jail takes about a third of the department’s resources and budget.
“It’s a city inside those walls that operates 24 hours a day,” he says. “You have 900 inmates that need food, medical care and mental health services.”
He also notes that when gas prices go up a few cents, “That’s a major issue for us.”
Addressing other needs, Grinnell has instituted a highly specialized Aggressive Driving/DUI Unit.
“There are too many people dying on the highways due to impaired driving – whether it’s drinking or texting,” he says.
Grinnell has also put the DARE drug program back into the schools.
“I think it’s important that we’re teaching fifth-graders about life choices.” His community engagement program includes a new, expanded website (www.lcso.org), a growing social media presence, community programs where deputies participate and charity events such as “Shop With a Cop.”
As with every law enforcement agency, drugs are a major concern.
“We’re getting calls that, several years ago would have been shocking, are almost becoming routine,” he says.
No deputies have been killed since Grinnell has taken over.
“But, we’ve had some close calls,” he says. “I get goosebumps. The nature of the calls we’ve been getting – the level of violence – in the past three or four years is very alarming.”
Grinnell says he has to plan at least five years ahead.
“It takes time to hire deputies, train them and get them out in the field doing their job,” he says.
Part of the department’s planning goal is to serve a much-expanded county population in the near future. Grinnell refers to The Villages growth in Lake County: “I believe that we’re looking at another 4,500 or so homes in the future.”
To help run the department, Grinnell turned to Jerry Craig, who spent 30 years with the Marion County Sheriff’s Department, to come out of retirement and serve as chief deputy.
“There are three majors, one in charge of each division, with a strong support organization under each of them,” he says.
The lip-synch entry, featuring several LCSO departments, was made in fun, but it also gives viewers a quick overview of the scope of the operation.
When talking about his entire department, Grinnell gives his staff the ultimate compliment.
“They make me look good,” he says with a wide smile.
John W Prince is a writer and Villages resident. For more information visit www.GoMyStory.com.