Eric Aden's road to becoming Okaloosa County sheriff, his plans for the role
SHALIMAR – Eric Aden’s office has space to fill.
In it can be seen glimpses of who he is — a canvas family portrait with his wife Mandy, four daughters and son, an Auburn University travel cup and a wooden sign that reads, “Jesus” — but the room is relatively empty.
As Aden sits in his new office — three times the size of any office he has ever occupied — he imagines he will grow into the space as he grows into the role of Okaloosa County sheriff.
“This is a 36-year dream in the making,” Aden said. “I realize I inherited a well-oiled machine, and I feel blessed that I was the one who was selected by the sheriff to fill the shoes. I feel like I’ve finally made it to where my lifelong dream, a boy’s dream, has finally come true. It’s the most honored job or role I will ever take is to be this county’s sheriff. It is surreal.”
What dreams are made of
Aden was sworn in Jan. 5, marking the first time in the history of Okaloosa County that someone won the elected office of sheriff in an uncontested race.
Unbeknownst to his daughters — ages 18, 17, 15 and 13 — they are sworn in, too.
“When they said, ‘All rise,’ my brother was the only one smart enough to stop and not raise his hand,” Aden said with a laugh. “So my daughters are all sworn in as deputies.”
Aden has waited for this day since he was a bright-eyed child watching “The Andy Griffith Show" about Sheriff Andy Taylor. Law enforcement, purity — the show had everything his dreams are made of. It’s still his favorite.
“The innocence of those times really resonated with me, and the way that that sheriff operated — to be able to settle problems without violence and without force — was always impressive to me,” Aden said. “Aside from the comedy itself, it always had a good moral compass and principle behind it. Fast forward, eighth grade goes by and was like, ‘Wow, that’s gonna be me one day.’ ”
That was the year the sheriff’s daughter asked him to the school dance.
“As the father of four daughters, I know the apprehension of any young man wanting to date the sheriff’s daughter, or even go out on a date or (to) a dance with a sheriff’s daughter and the nerves at that age,” Aden said. “I remember coming home telling my father, ‘Dad I don’t know if ... ,’ to express my anxiety about going to the dance and he said, ‘Oh, you’re going to dance. That’s the sheriff’s daughter.’ ”
Aden was born and raised in Northwest Florida. His father was an aerospace engineer and pilot at Eglin Air Force Base.
He is still lifelong friends with that sheriff’s daughters.
“So in the eighth grade, he shows up in this Jeep Grand Cherokee Wagoneer with a Stetson hat,” Aden said. “I was enamored. I was probably still playing cops and robbers, but I was enamored and fascinated at the same time.”
The self-proclaimed “diehard Auburn fan” later studied criminology at Florida State University. He loved it, though. And his next move was no surprise.
“My mom said, ‘Don’t you want to stay son, and go to law school?’” Aden said. “I said, ‘Heck no, mom, I want to come home and make $17,000 a year as a cop,’ and that’s what I did.”
Aden came home and hit the ground running, he said, as a deputy for 3½ years. He was a patrolman, worked the streets at the south end of the county and a school resource officer back in the first wave of the SROs in 1997.
In a plot twist, Aden took a break from law enforcement to help his brother run a mortgage business.
“I didn’t know it would be so invaluable at this point in my career, knowing budgets and crunching numbers,” Aden said. “It has proven to be very valuable when it comes to budget time, but I knew I was not on the track I wanted to be on. I knew ultimately I always had aspired to be sheriff of this county that I love. I knew I was blessed to be born and raised here. I knew what a rarity that was. I knew that having the relationships I have of long-term natives, of locals in the area, was going to be critical to my success.”
'Home is home'
What happened next Aden can only credit to divine intervention. He got a phone call from recently retired Okaloosa County Commissioner Graham Fountain.
“He had been the undersheriff and he’d always taken a shine to me back in the ’90s for some reason, from (when I was) a young deputy,” Aden said. “He’d always stayed in contact with me, reached out to me with different job opportunities. He says, ‘Hey, how would you like to go back into law enforcement?’ "
Mike Adkinson had just won the election for Walton County sheriff and was building his team. Aden's name came up.
"I said, ‘Wow, I don’t even know this gentleman,'" Aden said. "I started as a sergeant, was promoted to lieutenant and became a U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task force member. It was really cool because it had the mixture of being a manager but I still got to do the exciting, adrenaline rush type stuff."
In two years, another phone call changed his trajectory, this time from the soon-to-be Okaloosa County undersheriff, Don Adams.
“He said, ‘Hey, how would you like to come home?’ ” Aden said.
Aden wanted to return to Okaloosa County, but didn’t want to abandon his current workplace. He approached Adkinson with his dilemma.
“(Adkinson) was very supportive and said, ‘You’ve got a great career here and a bright future here with us, but home is home,’ ” Aden said. “He said, ‘Sometimes a train comes by you once in a lifetime, and if you don’t get on it, it may never come back by.’”
Aden got on the train.
Back to the basics
Aden was sitting in Adams' truck when he felt the first fraction of a chance that his childhood dream might come to fruition.
“He said, ‘Listen, we are looking at who might be most suitable to take the reins when Larry Ashley retires down the road. Is that something you’re interested in?,’ ” Aden said.
“‘We see you’ve got the education. We see you’ve got the relationships. You’re born and raised here. We feel like you’re best suited to win if it’s something you’re interested in. I said, ‘Not yes, but heck yes. It’s been a long aspiration of mine.’ He said, ‘Get ready because it’s going to be a wild ride. You’re fixing to be moved around and get exposed and get experience.’ ”
Aden said they plucked him out of Judicial and moved him to the Criminal Investigations Department, where he spent two years as investigative lieutenant. It was his toughest job, but the one where he learned the most about teamwork.
It was there where he commonly uttered the phrase, “No one’s smarter than all of us put together.”
“I could really see how everybody started working together when we had a homicide or a robbery or a major incident,” Aden said. “It really helped me appreciate the value of teamwork and family in that setting. They are way understaffed and overworked in CID. It was very much a difficult job to be their manager.”
Aden then became a watch commander, one of the most rewarding positions of his career, a close second to being a school resource officer.
“They felt I needed to get back in the swing of things, get back to the foundation of law enforcement,” Aden said. “After 19 years of not being on the road, I went on the road. I show up with a big brass belt buckle and they’re like, ‘Where in the world did you get that?’ I’m thinking, ‘Man, this is what I wore 20 years ago.’ It was a crash course, because it had been so long on the road.”
Aden went back to the foundation of law enforcement, treating people fairly, he said. It hasn’t changed in 100 years.
He then got promoted to captain over operations for almost two years and then major over operations.
“My first day in office was the Hurricane Michael bearing down on us,” Aden said. “There was a lot of anxiety trying to make sure we had personnel and resources in place for evacuation routes, to make sure the county was safe. That was one of the first challenges I had, sitting right here in this office with Larry Ashley trying to work through the minutiae of keeping the county safe.”
He took over the administration bureau in June, the last role before sheriff. He was able to attend the FBI National Academy.
In August 2019, he filed to run for sheriff. He garnered supporters — among them his close friend and ex-wife — raised money and prepared for battle. No one came out to run against him, he said.
Aden credits becoming sheriff to his parents teaching him to treat people fairly, his mother, who makes her own “Back the blue,” T-shirts, the support of his wife and soulmate, Mandy — who is sweet, but “tough as nails” — and the backing of former Sheriff Ashley. But more than all of that, God.
“I recently had a captain ask me, ‘At what point did you know you wanted to be sheriff, and at what point did you know what you needed to do to get there?’ ” Aden said. “I said, ‘I feel like I’ve done everything that I possibly could do to get to this point — humanly possible — but I truly believe there are greater hands involved in this than just human hands. I don’t think you get to this point without some help from a higher power, so I have to give credit to God for being able to be in this position. I know it’s a rarity to have the ability to know what you want to do at an early age.”
'Good and evil'
One of Aden’s main goals as sheriff is to bring back community policing.
“We had that back in the day, in the late ’90s, early 2000s,” Aden said. “It metamorphosed into street crimes.”
Aden referenced the Sheriff's Office’s 50 SROs, but wants to add another position called community resource deputies.
“They’re currently our traffic units and they’re going to do a dual role,” Aden said. “They’re going to go and work in conjunction with our district commanders and they’re going to be resources within the district geographically. They’re going to work to enhance the community policing in that district.”
Aden, a member of Shalimar United Methodist Church, also wants to continue growing the Sheriff's Office’s relationship with the 230-plus churches in Okaloosa County.
“We have a large church base here,” Aden said. “I don’t think you can find a better temperature quantifier than that of a pastor and his congregation. He knows the problem areas and the problem people and the resources and needs for the community they service.”
In conjunction with that, he wants to create a civilian merit board.
“Meaning, I want to take a farmer from the north end, a faith-based leader down here in the south end or in Destin, maybe take a business owner, a condominium owner, a banker, and put them on a civilian board to check the temperature from them on what they’re hearing from our constituents in the community,” Aden said. “And say, ‘Hey, what are your needs?’ It’s not that we’re not going to know about it. But it’s, ‘How are you perceiving our performance out there?’ ”
Another of his goals is to grow the Internet Crimes Against Children division.
“Most people nowadays use technology to prey on children,” Aden said. “It’s like catching fish in a barrel. When we do these stings, we catch the worst of the worst criminals — those that are trying to prey sexually or physically abusive on children. We could add more and more bodies to that. That’s something we’re going to do. We have to buy resources for that. The only way to fight crime is you throw money or personnel at it.”
Aden will trickle other changes in between his main initiatives, but the overall goal hasn’t changed. His mission — like the simplicity of his childhood hero Andy Taylor — is to fight crime and keep the community safe.
“We’re not going to have blurred lines between good and evil,” Aden said. “Our citizens demand a high level of service. We give that. That’s not going to be sacrificed or diminished. We’re going to continue to provide that service to them. We’re going to draw a hard line in the sand, and in the end, good is going to overcome evil.”
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