Effective policing requires more than law enforcement. Officials must connect with their communities to make them safer. So says Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, the nationally known lawman and namesake of “Jeepin’ with Judd,” a three-day, family-friendly, off-road event set to kick off on Friday, Feb. 23, at Clear Springs Ranch in Bartow, Fla. Jeepin’ Central Florida met with Judd to learn more about the event and the causes it supports.
Sheriff, where are you from, and how long have you worked in law enforcement?
I’m from Polk County, born and raised here. And I’ve worked for the sheriff’s office since July 1972 after graduating high school in June. It’s the only full-time job I’ve had as an adult. I’ve had the passion to be the sheriff since I was a very young fella. When I was 5, 6, 7 years old, I had little police outfits. I thought law enforcement was the greatest thing in the world.
So I got a job as a telecommunicator, married my high school sweetheart, worked my way up, and continued my education. And when the former sheriff retired, I ran for the office. This is my 14th year as sheriff, and I’m living the dream. I always wanted to work in law enforcement and help people who are less fortunate.
You have become a public figure with a national presence. Does that make your workday more complicated or does it help you further your mission?
I consider it a blessing. I’m able to make a positive impact in many different areas of our communities. Our job is not just enforcing the law; it’s ensuring there’s peace and tranquility so people can economically thrive and socially thrive. I consider it an honor, I really do. You can get some positive attention — and sometimes negative attention. It comes with the job.
I was impressed with your statement about outlawing bump stocks following the Las Vegas shooting. You made a sound argument. Did you get any blowback from that?
First, let me say I am a huge Second Amendment fan. I believe those that are adults and don’t have any mental health issues or felony records have not only the right to own a firearm but the obligation to have the tools to protect themselves, their families and their communities. Second, a bump stock is not gun control. It’s just an illegal — or it should be an illegal — way around a law that is clearly in place, that you can’t own automatic firearms if you can’t go through the right legal channels. It’s a shortcut.
I found it not just interesting but hilarious that, as soon as I put that position out, there were a few people who accused me of being anti-Second Amendment. And not two hours later, the National Rifle Association came out and said they approve of the government regulating bump stocks. Now, normally, I let criticism go by the wayside. But I couldn’t resist. The next day, I put out a statement saying, “For those of you who think I’m anti-Second Amendment, then so is the NRA.”
Nuts and Bolts
Grady Judd is the sheriff of Polk County, Fla., and part of the team of organizers and volunteers behind Jeepin’ with Judd, a three-day, family-friendly off-road event that begins Friday, Feb. 23, 2018, at Clear Springs Ranch in Bartow, Fla. For more information, visit jeepinwithjudd.com or connect on Facebook.
Do you worry about public opinion when you craft those statements?
I make decisions not based on my best interest but the best interest of making this community safe. This community has been gracious enough to let me occupy their seat as the sheriff and I certainly wake up every day with that thought in mind. What can I do today to keep the community safe and function in their best interest? I don’t play to the fringes. The far-right fringe, the far-left fringe? Those two groups will never be satisfied. I play to the overwhelming majority of this community. I believe right is right, wrong is wrong, and wrong is never right.
Speaking of the community, where did the idea for Jeepin’ with Judd come from? Are you an off-roader?
Well, I am now. One of my colleagues, Sgt. Doug Tanner, came to me one day — and he deserves all the credit, not me — and he said, “Sheriff, I got an idea for a fundraiser. We need to have a Jeepin’ event. We’ll call it “Jeepin’ with Sheriff Judd.”
Now, I’m picturing some kind of muddy, beer-drinking operation. I’m not comfortable with that concept. And he said, “No, no, no. There’s a Jeepin’ society I’m involved in. It’s much like Harley riders, only they’re Jeep enthusiasts.” He said I would be hugely impressed with the people, their ethics, their morals. They like to trail-ride and climb obstacles. It’s not a bunch of guys driving through a mud pit drunk.
So I said, “Well, how are we gonna pull this off?” He said Clear Springs Ranch had already agreed to give us the property for free. We just had to provide an indemnification policy. My first statement was I want to double whatever they ask for. He said he would put it together and I said “Let’s do it.” I got so excited, I went out and bought a Jeep. In fact, I’ve bought two. The first one was a 2003 and the next was a 2006, both Wranglers. The first was a stick shift, and my wife didn’t like that.
When was that first event?
This is our fourth year, so that would be 2015. But I didn’t make it the first day. We had a SWAT callout the night before, so the day of the event, I was tied up with that. It was a really bad SWAT callout. The guy barricaded himself in the house, shot at us, set a bomb off, shot one of our medics. It was a big deal.
But my wife was there, with our son and our grandchildren. I get a text from her: “This is totally awesome.” You have to know my wife to look at that and know it’s out of character. I called her up. She said that, aside from the fact that Doug Tanner and our deputies were doing a great job putting it on, it’s huge fun. She said, “They’re respectful, they’re family-oriented. There’s no foul language. I’m perfectly comfortable with the kids out here. It’s an unbelievably awesome event.” And then she said, “By the way, I want a Jeep where I don’t have to shift gears so I can come out here and drive.”
Did you get a good crowd?
We had a huge group the first year. We had an even larger group the second year and, since then, within a week or two of accepting reservations, you wouldn’t believe it. They just flooded in. We’ve almost got all the hotels booked from here to Plant City. We’ve raised huge amounts of money for our charity and had a totally awesome time. And now I own a Jeep that’s complete with a lifted body and oversized tires, and I’ve got the Jeepin’ bug.
What charity does the event support?
All the proceeds go to Polk Sheriff’s Charities, and from there, we have a board of directors that allocates the funds. Most recently, we had deputies who were displaced during the hurricane; two of our deputies had horrific damage to their homes. We helped them. We also sent money to help deputies at Monroe County Sheriff’s Office in the Keys. They said this group of deputies — 10 or 12 of them — had suffered terribly and needed help.
We also fund college scholarships. This year, we are funding scholarships in the name of deputies who have lost their lives in the line of duty in Polk County. We have funded Christmas parties for communities in need. We just made a big donation to the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches. They used it to convert a building into a college dorm so that, when kids age out of the youth ranches, they have a place to stay through college.
It’s all built around what we can do to make the community better. What can we do to help during a time of tragedy? And it’s only possible because of the wonderful people who come out to enjoy the weekend with us at our event.
Sounds like a lot of work. Would anyone blame you if you threw your hands up and said, “I don’t have time for this”?
Let me answer that by giving you a quote from a gentleman I personally knew: George Jenkins, who built the Publix empire. He was once asked, “George, you have a habit of giving away money. If you never gave any away, how much would you be worth?” And he said, “Probably nothing.” And that’s my response. When we give back to the community, our return on the investment is the partnerships with and the trust of the community, we receive 10,000-fold what we give. The deputies put this together and donate their time, all to give back to community we serve, we love, and we respect. We consider it an honor to be able to do it.
What’s new for 2018? We’re told you plan to give away a Wrangler.
We do. For the last two years, Derrick Kelley from Kelley Buick GMC has bought us a Jeep and then tricked it out. He gives the Jeep to us, we have a drawing, and we donate 100% of the proceeds to the charity.
When you come out there, you see that we have the business owners in the community as sponsors. We have the Jeep family that comes out and plays all weekend with us, different vendors that come out, deputies and others who volunteer. The Orlando Jeep Club gives us a huge amount of volunteer support. Together, they make this Jeepin’ event happen for us.
Who builds the trails?
The trails are built by volunteers. One gentleman in particular does the majority of the work, but he doesn’t want any recognition. I call him the “Heavy Equipment Master.” He comes out Saturday, on his days off, and builds the trails for us. We expanded to add an extra trail this year. We don’t want to make people stand in line to ride once.
Do you have trails for all skill levels?
We do, all skill levels, from simply a ride through the woods to what I would call “exceptionally challenging.”
How do you register?
You can register online at jeepinwithjudd.com or find us on Facebook.
What’s the cost to be a spectator or ride the trails?
Spectators get in for free. Preregistration is $60 per Jeep, and that’s with as many occupants as you have seatbelts. It’s $80 to register onsite.
Anything else you want to mention before we let you go?
My parting statement would be this: Our cost to put this event on is very low, and that’s because of the overwhelming support we get from our volunteers. We’re going to guarantee it’s going to be a huge, fun, family-friendly event where safety and security is paramount. Everyone will have an awesome time, and 100% of the proceeds will go to help everyone from those who are less fortunate to those who are facing a crisis no one could ever dream about. A great amount of appreciation goes out to the Orlando Jeep Club for their time, energy, and resources in developing the awesome trail rides.
It all goes back to the community, and not just Polk County. As I said before, some of the money from the Jeepin’ event will go to those who lost everything to the hurricane while they were out keeping the community safe.