Susan Benton is a ‘Florida Icon'
Highlands County sheriff, Sebring; age 67
» After my husband passed away and my youngest son graduated from high school, I had to ask myself: ‘What do you want to do now?’ My responsibilities up until then had been, first and foremost, maintaining my marriage, second, raising my children and, third, my profession. So, the first two things were completed and the thing that was left was my job. Then, after Sheriff Howard Godwin decided to retire, I began thinking that, wow, I could do that job. The biggest hurdle at the time, I thought, was being a woman and, in rural south-central Florida, was that going to fly?
» A sheriff’s deputy needs to have an ethical character and be someone you can trust to do the right thing even when no one’s looking.
» Throughout my adult life, I continued to play softball, all the way up to the time I became sheriff. I just ran out of time. I couldn’t make the practices anymore.
» Being the first woman elected in the state of Florida in a general election to the office of sheriff became a really big deal. I would get letters from young girls. I realized I had much more responsibility than just being the sheriff, operating a big budget, managing lots of people and protecting and serving. I also was a role model, and that weighed heavy on me to be the kind of person I needed to be so I could be a role model for these young girls.
» Early in my life, I began to develop, basically, a calling to service. I didn’t know exactly what. Initially, I thought about a religious life. I went to the police academy in Miami in 1974, and after I hit the streets doing my initial patrol functions, it started to come together. I began to come across intoxicated people, people on drugs, homeless people and people who chose to do bad things. It was a vocation much like I imagined from the life of Jesus, walking around on earth. He didn’t pick and choose who he spoke to or who he helped. That’s when it clicked that a career in law enforcement was for me.
» I ended up in Highlands County because my husband was a state trooper and he got struck by lightning while working a wreck on the Palmetto Expressway in Miami. Because of that, after he went through extensive rehab, they transferred him to a ‘less stressful area’ — Lake Placid.
» I never hesitated to go into that bar fight or search that dark building at 2 o’clock in the morning. But as a street deputy, if you have the ability to communicate and you use your skills wisely, you won’t have to fight too many people. Now, I’ve had my share of fights. Trust me. I’ve been on the lower end of them a time or two, but those are situations that are few and far between.
» The primary backbone of Highlands County remains agriculture. It’s great to still be able to see guys on horseback, rounding up the cows.
» Some folks might not agree with me, but I still think that the economy is driving some of these problems between citizens and law enforcement. We have a lot of folks out there who are hopeless about jobs and having a place to live and hopeless about being able to take care of their kids financially. We have a whole population of folks who are just lost. That’s a personal opinion, but I see that in my jail. The majority of people in my jail are either mentally ill, involved with drugs and alcohol, or they’re poor.
» People who think marriage is easy are naive. Marriage takes a tremendous amount of effort and nurturing.
» When I first moved here, it was ’78 or ’79, and I went to work at the sheriff’s office. But they didn’t know what to do with a girl with police powers, so to speak, and I was relegated to working in the office with a crisscross tie on and a Peter Pan collar shirt. They had no women officially on patrol. At that time, I had four years of experience, I had a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and so it took its toll on me. I basically cried and told my husband for five years to please take me back to Miami. But obviously in hindsight there was a plan in place. I found my place eventually.
» I ran for sheriff in 2004, and it was a tough race. Come to find out, I believe that the biggest push that got me elected was women. It just seemed like the women in this community took me on like the chance they never had — or the chance they want their daughters or granddaughters to have.
» When I fish now, it’s usually in the ocean, off the east coast, but I was raised in Miami, and a big weekend for us was cane poles and bob bers. When my dad would get a day off, my mom would take the iron frying pan, some Crisco and some grits and we’d go out on a canal bank out there in the Everglades and we’d fish all day. Mom would fry up what we caught and fix up a pot of grits and we were in hog heaven.
» The trust your community has in you as the sheriff is only as good as their trust in you to police yourself.
» We’ve got a couple of great Cuban restaurants here now in Highlands County — finally!
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