It was April 24, 1990, at dusk when 28-year-old Lakeland Police Officer Sammy Taylor and his partner were called to a home where a couple was fighting – one of the most dangerous situations an officer can encounter.
When they arrived, the wife ran out the front door, said her husband had gone out the back door and was armed with two handguns and so Taylor and his partner made their way to the back of the house, where they found the man ducked down behind a car.
“There just happened to be a telephone pole that I was able to get really skinny behind,” recalled Taylor. “When he saw me, he stopped running and he stood up and pointed the gun at me and I yelled at him to drop the gun. He actually threw the gun down and put his hands up … He surprised me because I thought we were getting ready to go right there. We would have, but he decided to throw the gun down.”
A commendation Taylor received at the time pointed out that Taylor and his partner’s “exercise of safety and control in a situation in which they could have opened fire on suspect” was worth noting.
That calm demeanor was one character trait that helped to sway Lakeland City Manager Shawn Sherrouse in recent days to offer the top cop position to Taylor at the Lakeland Police Department, an agency for which he has served his entire 34-year law enforcement career.
Taylor, who currently serves as an assistant police chief, will become Lakeland’s new police chief Dec. 1 upon the retirement of Ruben Garcia, Sherrouse announced at Monday morning’s City Commission meeting.
“I’m incredibly humbled and honored to be given the opportunity to serve as Lakeland’s next chief of police,” Taylor, 60, said after the announcement at Monday morning’s City Commission meeting. “I am honored to work alongside the consummate professionals at the Lakeland Police Department who have dedicated themselves to ensuring the safety of our community.”
Garcia is set to retire at the end of the month and wanted a month of transition time with his successor.
“Chief Garcia has set the standard for what it means to be a servant leader,” Taylor said.
Taylor follows in the footsteps of his father, who worked his way up from a patrol deputy to a major at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office during a 39-year career. After he retired from PCSO, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd recommended Sam Taylor Sr. as the police chief in several local cities, including Auburndale, Haines City and Davenport, starting in the mid-1990s. He would work as the interim chief until a permanent chief could be found, although all the agencies wanted to hire him.
The younger Taylor said he remembered his dad working very hard in law enforcement — it wasn’t an 8 a.m.-to-5 p.m. job for his father, nor is it for Taylor. His performance reviews note that the younger Taylor is often the first one in and the last one to leave.
Taylor recalled going out as a boy with his dad to dig post holes for election signs for Sheriff Monroe Brannen, which they planted on roadsides throughout the county. And he recalls his father helping to oversee the building of a law enforcement training center near Bartow, using inmate labor to get the work done. It was the first time the young Taylor had ever seen a jail inmate.
Sammy Taylor Jr. graduated from Evangel Christian School in May 1980. He worked as a bagboy at Publix and then landed a part-time job with United Parcel Service as he wound his way through the law enforcement academy. But that part-time job with UPS turned into a full-time management position with the company and he moved to Clearwater to take an operations manager job.
Chief Taylor remembers attending a leadership training course in Rock Hill, S.C., which he called a three-week boot camp for new supervisors from all over the country.
One afternoon, their mentors, who were division managers, had them play a game of volleyball. But Taylor said it was not just a game; they were being watched from the top row of stands, with supervisors taking notes on who the leaders of the group were, who would motivate their team to play better if they got behind and who was encouraging teamwork.
A night when he was delivering packages late into the night on Christmas Eve as his wife and then 2-year-old daughter waited at home for him was when he decided to follow his father into law enforcement. But Taylor said he took the lessons he learned at UPS with him to the police department because it was from UPS that he learned about putting customer satisfaction first and working with people.
In fact, in looking through about 200 pages of documents in his personnel file, you’d think it was written with uranium because of the glowing descriptions of Taylor. For more than 30 years, his performance reviews include phrases like:
- A master of communication with people of all walks of life
- Not only does Taylor live our values, he instills them in the supervisors, detectives, and officers assigned to him
- A strong force
- The go-to person in the executive staff
- Strong ethics and values
- Taylor works a difficult problem to its root cause
- Masterful at planning and executing a project
- Tends to work harmoniously and effectively
- Displays self-confidence, authority and enthusiasm
- One of the first to arrive each morning and the last to leave
- Visionary, trusted leader
- A respected representative of the organization
- Sees the big picture of the organization
Victor White, his supervisor in 2016, wrote, “Personally, we are blessed to have Sam as a member of our staff.” The year before, White wrote, “Taylor may well be fully satisfied with remaining in this assignment for years to come, but he certainly has the skills and abilities to progress within the organization if he so chooses.”
In his most recent evaluation conducted by Garcia, the current chief hinted that Taylor should one day fill his shoes.
“After 33 years of service, (Assistant Chief of Police) Taylor remains an incredible asset to the city of Lakeland, the citizens and the members he leads in the department,” Garcia wrote on March 17. “He is highly trained and educated to make the next step in the agency and has the respect of his peers, troops and myself.”
The only next step for an assistant police chief is, of course, chief.
The only faint criticism LkldNow could find in his file was from a 1991 performance review. Sgt. Tom Luther wrote that Taylor “could possibly afford to ‘slow down’ a pace because he is so eager to obtain knowledge.” Luther added that Taylor “is fast becoming an asset to this division.”
Taylor is also known for his organizational skills and immaculate office. He keeps everything on his desk in precise order – and knows if one of his team plays a little joke on him by turning a collector’s coffee cup or faces his stapler away from him. Taylor chuckles along with them – he is also known for his sense of humor.
And they still rib him about something that happened when he first became a lieutenant.
“I told the young officers on the midnight shift — and most of the officers on the midnight shift at the time were young police officers — that when they got up from the briefing table, I wanted them to push the chairs in and I wasn’t kidding about that,” Taylor said. “I wanted them to push their chairs in because, you know, it’s just part of being organized – we’re going to leave the room nice and neat.”
But, he said, there was one officer that continually did not push his chair in. So he told the sergeant to call the officer on the radio and tell him to drive back to the station, go to the briefing room and push his chair in. The sergeant asked if he were joking. The usually good-humored Taylor was not.
“It wasn’t about pushing the chair in — that was not the thing,” Taylor said. “It was: If I can’t trust you with the little things, how can I trust you to give you a fast car and and a big gun and trust you to go out and make the right decisions? And it wasn’t just for that officer — I wanted everybody else in the squad to hear, ‘Oh he is serious about this’ … It’s a task that your boss’ boss asked you to do, so whether it’s dumb or not, you ought to do it.”
Based on feedback from the community, Sherrouse said he chose to limit his search to in-house candidates only. Taylor, who has been with the department for 33 years, and Assistant Police Chief Hans Lehman, who has been with the department 26 years, both applied.
Sherrouse put together a 10-person citizens’ committee to help him make the selection that included five city staff members, one of them from Fraternal Order of Police union, representatives from the Police Citizen’s Advisory Board, the Concerned Citizens Coalition, the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, the Neighborhood Association Coalition and the NAACP.
He interviewed Taylor and Lehman several times, both formally and informally and also consulted Assistant Chief Steven Pacheco and the department’s five police captains.
The choice between Taylor and Lehman was the most difficult decision he has faced as city manager, Sherrouse said. “Each of them are so equally qualified though they each possess their own unique leadership styles,” he said. The final choice relied “heavily on tenure and past examples of demonstrating extreme calm and professionalism during extremely difficult situations,” Sherrouse said.
- 1989: LPD officer
- 1997: Sergeant
- 2002: Lieutenant
- 2015: Captain
- 2019: Assistant chief
- 2022: Chief
“Our culture of commitment to excellence, community policing and compassionate accountability will continue to be our touchstones as we stand on the shoulders and the legacies of those officers that came before us,” Taylor said. “After serving this community for almost 34 years, I still have a passion for helping people, and I look forward to coming to work every day to ensure our citizens and visitors alike receive the exceptional police service they deserve.”
Sherrouse lauded Taylor’s experience, reputation and character, which he said gives “me full confidence in his ability to lead the Lakeland Police Department as our community’s next police chief. The next several weeks will be very beneficial for Assistant Chief Taylor to have Chief Garcia assisting in the transition process, providing crucial insight and critical job knowledge as we prepare for new leadership when Chief Garcia officially retires on November 30th.”
Taylor was hired by the Lakeland Police Department in February 1989, when he earned a monthly salary of $1,632, and was promoted to detective in the early 1990s, where he received commendations for arresting burglars, including one man wanted for a strong of 33 burglaries to support a $3,000-a-week crack cocaine habit.
In 1997, he was promoted to sergeant, a position where he supervised officers in the uniform patrol division and the criminal investigations division. He was promoted to lieutenant in December 2002 and has served as a lieutenant in the uniform patrol division, 911 emergency communications and the criminal investigations division.
In 2015, Taylor was promoted to captain, overseeing the special operations division, and then transferred to supervising the Investigative Services Division. In 2019, he rose to the rank of assistant chief.
As assistant chief, he provided direction for the special services bureau, responsible for personnel and services including SWAT, K-9 unit, school resource officers, traffic, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs enforcement, red light cameras, crime prevention, 911 communications, planning and research, and recruiting and training. He then transferred to his current role of overseeing the criminal investigations bureau.
Chief Garcia said, “I am extremely proud of both our internal candidates who were willing to take on the challenges and honor of being the next Lakeland PD chief. I fully support our city manager in the tough, well-thought-out decision he made. It’s a great day for Lakeland when we collectively build our next leaders from inside the organization.”
Sheriff Judd offered congratulations Monday morning: “Both candidates were immensely qualified; the city manager had a difficult choice. I’ve known Sammy long before he was a police officer and I worked with his dad at the Sheriff’s Office for many years. Sammy is a great man and a great police administrator. I look forward to working with him and I congratulate him. Sammy will take a professional law enforcement agency to the next level.”
During his career, Taylor has been selected for leadership positions or served as representative on multi-jurisdictional task forces, including with Federal Bureau of Investigation, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the State Attorney’s Office.
Taylor graduated from Polk Community College in 1981 with an associate arts degree, and the University of South Florida in December 1993 with a bachelor of arts degree in criminal justice. He received a master of public administration with a concentration in national security issues from Troy State University in December 2002.
He also completed the certified public manager course and received the CPM designation from Florida State University in 2009. He is a 2011 graduate of the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, and is a graduate of the Police Executive Research Forums’ Senior Management Institute for Police at Boston University.
Taylor said his wife DeeDee was his high school sweetheart. They have been married for 40 years. Their daughter Brittany, 37, is an advanced nurse practitioner in Lakeland. Both, he said, are happy for him, if not a little nervous. His wife is retired and was at their cabin in North Carolina on Monday, but was headed back to Lakeland this week.
The specifics of the hiring agreement, including salary, have not yet been determined and will be released once those details have been finalized.
“I have discussed salary with Sammy in concept, and we have a gentleman’s agreement, but we need to get all of the information finalized and official before it is publicized,” Sherrouse said.
Taylor told the city commissioners in a brief address that he is looking forward to getting started. He reiterated that during an interview in his office.
“It’s not about me, it’s not about Ruben — and he’ll tell you the same thing,” Taylor said. “It’s about the men and women that work here. It’s about them coming to work every day, standing the line and doing what they need to keep this community safe and not be afraid. Ruben uses the term, and I think it’s right: This is not a police department. It’s your police department.”
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