Crestview Police Chief Tony Taylor has been working in law enforcement for more than 40 years in Okaloosa County. His first job was an auxiliary police officer with the Fort Walton Beach Police Department.
In 2012, he was elected to serve as the Chief of Police for the City of Crestview. In this Q&A, he talks about some of the challenges of the job, issues the city faces and memorable moments on the job.
According to the Crestview Police Department's 2017 crime reports, the majority of offenses in the city are larceny. Does that reflect other year's reports? And how does the department work to decrease these offenses?
Larceny is a definite quality-of-life issue in any community. Maintaining a visible presence in our community and immediate investigation of any instances of larceny has caused the number of these crimes to decrease in Crestview over the last year by 73 incidents. We work with local businesses to encourage owners to be vigilant for shoplifters, for example, and call us to arrest the perpetrators when they identify them. Word gets out that that shop is not a good place to rob. Additionally, as reported last year, we now have two officers who are certified business security inspectors who work with business owners to help them upgrade their business and property to make it less of a target for potential thieves. In addition, responding to meetings we have had with local businesses, we have returned to good old-fashioned community policing by having foot patrols in the historic business district, which creates a visible presence and serves as a deterrent to potential criminals.
In your 2016 offense reports domestic violence occurrences seem to be another big issue with 245 reported offenses. In your law enforcement experience, how can a community as a whole do better to reduce these occurrences?
Sadly, there is not much a law enforcement agency can do to prevent domestic violence incidents, because these occur inside peoples’ homes. We can only react to them. It’s the sort of crime that it is difficult to be proactive to prevent. But as you can see from the comparison between 2016 and 2017, domestic violence incidents decreased from the 245 incidents you mention to 81 incidents in 2017. Victims and potential victims are learning there are options for them to get out of a potential violent situation, including social services such as Shelter House. Part of our officers’ jobs is to educate victims about options that will help them from becoming victims again. Just last month, for example, our Community Services officers worked with Gordon Martial Arts here in Crestview to present a free and very well attended women’s self-defense course.
In January, the Crestview Police Department Facebook page announced that crime had dropped in 2017. What can you attribute the overall decrease to? How does the department plan to expand on that good news?
There are multiple reasons we have experienced a decrease in crime in Crestview. Among other reasons, our City Council has responded to data that showed our patrol officer ranks were understaffed and underpaid. To maintain qualified officers after we trained them, the council also allowed us to increase our officers’ salaries to be regionally competitive. We also increased our standards to exceed those of the state of Florida, and with a generous benefits package that includes a retirement package greater than that offered to state employees, we not only attracted new, highly qualified officers, we are able to keep them. Our officers can contribute up to 6 percent of their salaries toward their retirement fund. We have also expanded our Criminal Investigations Division, including adding investigators who concentrate primarily on sex and domestic crimes, to throw more investigators into some of our more complicated crimes. Implementing special task forces to concentrate on specific areas of crime when they arise, such as gangs, drug dealers and vehicle burglars, we have been able to nip many of these crimes in the bud. Our future plans include reactivating our Traffic Patrol Division, and adding a fourth K9 to assure all four shifts are provided a K9 unit. Toward that end, through our Crestview Citizens Police Academy Alumni we have partnered with Walker Elementary School, which is undertaking school wide fund-drives to raise money for a new dog. If they’re successful, of course the new K9 will be named “Walker.”
What is the biggest challenge when it comes to keeping Crestview safe?
Keeping a community safe requires us to approach multiple potential areas of concern often simultaneously. Challenges include both operational flexibility and funding for needed programs and equipment. Programs can mean everything from increased foot patrols in the downtown historic district to more frequent patrols in areas known for higher crimes. It means getting out in the community and talking to citizens to hear their concerns, and it means planning ahead in multiple areas. For the first time in its history, the Crestview Police Department has created, updates and provides our city leaders with a constantly evolving five-year plan, including financial forecasts, potential staffing needs and forecasted new equipment and vehicles. But none of this is possible without engaging the public and securing the citizens’ trust in their police department, and that comes down to visibility and engagement. For example, one of my officers saw a group of seven or eight men hanging out in a residential street recently at night. He stopped and in a non-confrontational way engaged them in conversation. It turns out they were holding nocturnal footraces. The next thing you know, my officer was challenged to one of the races! He was a sport and ran the race, and I can tell you of the two runners, my officer came in second while the resident came in next-to-last! It seems silly and insignificant, but in fact, the good will things like that create reverberate through the community, and in times of increased “us vs. them” mindsets and suspicion of law enforcement officers, means that should officers have to respond to that neighborhood in the future, some of the residents now know that our cops are on their side.
Tell me about your open door policy. Why did you implement it and why is it important for the community?
I have had an open door policy since my first day in office in Crestview more than five years ago. Communication within the agency and between the Police Department and the community is of paramount importance. It’s how I know what concerns my officers, what they hear from their patrols is concerning residents, and what residents bring to me directly. But there is still a stigma about coming to the Police Department to discuss a concern, a sometimes uncomfortable formality that accompanies climbing the stairs of the Whitehurst Municipal Building to meet with me or one of my officers. For that reason, we also head out into the community for informal opportunities to chat over a cup or coffee or a meal. Our Coffee With a Cop program, held every other month, and periodic Lunch With the Law events, allows these conversations to continue in both formal and informal settings, and leads to powerful connections between citizens and their Police Department. It also helps dispel rumors and builds a community trust that was shattered by the corruption of the previous police administration before I was hired.
Can you name a memorable moment since your open door policy was implemented that sticks out to you?
One of the most touching topics that has been brought to me many times is people of all walks of life begging me to please not let the case of Melissa Howard grow cold. [Melissa Howard was a young Crestview woman who was brutally murdered in 2006.] We also regularly hear from people asking the same thing for Kristy Rogers’  disappearance, and from family and friends of Callandra Stallworth, who disappeared last March. As long as I am chief, these will never be “cold cases.” We are very pleased that increasing our Criminal Investigations staffed has allowed one of my investigators to concentrate more on these and other as-yet unsolved cases. “There’s always someone out there who knows something,” he tells me. I have faith he will solve these. As for funny requests, well, we once had a lady who was convinced her neighbor was directing “radio waves” at her through her window. But before we could respond, someone at her church told her to fashion a helmet out of aluminum foil, and she told us that seemed to do the trick. But as I said earlier, we may chuckle at something like this, but for my officers and me, these problems are very much of concern to a citizen, and every citizen deserves our time to hear their concerns and when we can, do what is within our power both physically and lawfully to help them. I just don’t know if I could make a very good radio-wave-deflecting aluminum helmet myself!
What is the one piece of advice you wish residents would listen to?
Lock your doors! The single-most reason for the increase in motor vehicle thefts and burglaries from vehicles is because many people are busy or distracted and just forget to take their belongings from their cars and then lock their doors. Last year we had a resident catch thieves in the process of stealing his car, which he had left his keys in, and the bad guys actually started shooting at him with his own gun, which he had also left in the car. That and when you see something suspicious, call us right then and there. Call our Dispatch Center, 682-2055 right away. Don’t send us a social media post. Calling our Dispatch Center or, in an emergency, 911, is the best way to summon a police officer to help you out or check on suspicious activity you have noticed.
Tell me about the Citizen's Police Academy program. What are the requirements to join and how does the program help the police department? Lastly, how does that make you feel to see citizens wanting to support the department?
This program has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Every year we have upwards of 10 to 15 residents who want to learn how their Police Department works, how it interacts with other first responder agencies, and how it fits into the criminal justice program. Many of the graduates go on to become members of the Crestview Citizens Police Academy Alumni, a group these residents voluntarily formed as an independent, non-profit partner of the Police Department that helps us with staffing at community events, fundraising for equipment or supplies not covered by our city budget, and helping run programs such as the Citizens Police Academy and the Crestview Police Youth Academy in the summer. They volunteer in our office helping with non-restricted clerical tasks, such as duplicating forms, and turn out to help and join in the fun at our social events. Several have voluntarily taken the state required course to become school crossing guards, then pitch in to not only keep our students safe, but to free up patrol offers who can return to their normal duties, which sometimes include chasing down and ticketing drivers who speed through school zones. It really warms my heart to see all of these volunteers coming out to support our efforts and share our goals. And it’s not just the CCPAA. There’s the volunteer Blue Wives Matter group of police officer spouses, and even Be The Change, a Blue Lives Matter group founded by our special buddy Jae Williams, a local boy who was five years old when, after seeing the anti-police groups that made the news a couple years ago, he told his mom something needed to be done to support the local police and he wanted to do it. Last summer he graduated from our Youth Academy. We love him!