Florida’s top cop announced Friday that he will step down this fall, setting in motion a potential scramble to fill one of the most high-profile law enforcement jobs in the state.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Commissioner Rick Swearingen on Friday sent out an email announcing his retirement effective Sept. 1. But days later, in a subsequent letter released Monday, he moved his last day forward four months to May 1.
“While I have thoroughly enjoyed my 38 years with this agency, the time has come for FDLE to move in a new direction,” Swearingen wrote in an email sent out at 11:45 a.m. Friday. “I will miss my FDLE family tremendously. This agency and its members have made me who I am today. I look forward to personally saying goodbye to each of you in the coming months.”
As originally scheduled, Swearingen’s retirement was set to happen just two months before voters weigh in on the race for Governor and the three Cabinet officials that oversee FDLE. The outgoing Commissioner did not explain his expedited departure, only noting in his letter that the effective date “has been moved up.”
Swearingen, who makes more than $155,000, has been in charge of FDLE for the past eight years. He ascended into the job after then-Gov. Rick Scott ousted longtime FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey.
“We are grateful to Commissioner Swearingen for the more than 30 years he has dedicated to public service and safety in Florida,” read a Friday statement from the Governor’s Office.
“While serving as Commissioner, he has helped to prepare Florida against growing cybersecurity threats and helped local law enforcement improve their standards and methods to better protect their citizens from crime and violence. During his tenure, Florida has continued to hit record low crime rates. We’re appreciative of his tenured service to the safety of all Floridians and look forward to bringing forward a new candidate in the near future. We will share any details as they become available.”
Per a law approved during this year’s Legislative Session, Gov. Ron DeSantis will have an easier time appointing a political ally to the position.
Agriculture Commissioner and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Nikki Fried issued a statement, according to social media reports, saying it was “no secret” that DeSantis wanted Swearingen gone, “since he was not one of the governor’s cronies.”
In the statement Fried noted the new law, saying, “There are no coincidences when it comes to the DeSantis Administration.”
Social media reports have former U.S. Attorney Larry Keefe and Duval Sheriff Mike Williams being bandied about as potential replacements.
The department works in concert with local law enforcement as well leading statewide investigations, including probes into corruption among government officials. The agency also compiles crime statistics, maintains databases and oversees several crime labs that examine criminal evidence.
FDLE has a budget of nearly $388 million and nearly 2,000 positions.
This past Session, the Legislature also made it clear that FDLE agents will work in tandem with the Department of State to investigate allegations of voter fraud.
In the email announcing his retirement, Swearingen listed accomplishments was “especially proud of” during his tenure, including processing a backlog of sexual assault kit results, expanding use of force investigations and improving the database used to track sexual offenders.
Swearingen’s departure comes right after DeSantis signed into law SB 1658, which tweaks how the Commissioner is appointed in the future.
Under the new law, the FDLE Commissioner can be confirmed by a majority of the Cabinet, rather than through a unanimous Cabinet vote. That blocks the ability of outgoing Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — a Democrat looking to challenge DeSantis in the Governor’s race — from stonewalling the appointment.
Scott, now a U.S. Senator, on Friday issued a statement thanking Swearingen for his service and wished him well.
“Florida is a safer state thanks to the hard work, leadership and dedication to public safety that Rick Swearingen has shown throughout his career” read the statement from Scott’s office. “At FDLE, Rick led Florida’s state law enforcement response to the horrific tragedies at Pulse in Orlando and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, as well as to hurricanes and other emergencies. In each of these unimaginably difficult assignments, he served our state with the utmost professionalism. Thanks to our hard work, and Rick’s leadership at FDLE, Florida’s crime rate has continued to fall and reached record lows. I cannot thank Rick enough for his service to my family and the people of Florida. We wish him the very best in this next chapter of his life.”