Clay County Sheriff Michelle Cook says county’s growth poses a challenge in 2021, but she’s got a plan

ORANGE PARK, Fla. —

With just over four months into the new job, Clay County Sheriff Michelle Cook is looking to meet a new set of priorities for the new year.

The good news is she’s going into the new year with a crime rate that has gone down. Sheriff Cook believes that’s largely because of the pandemic but as Clay County continues to grow, she’s looking at specific challenges with plans to address them.

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Sheriff Cook agrees that drugs continue to be an issue in Clay County.

“We do have a drug problem here in Clay County we’re addressing and so driving down crime because many times the drugs are the catalyst for a lot of the crime that’s committed,” she said.

While driving down crime is a big priority, there’s also another challenge ahead.

“We’re either first or second fastest growing county in the state so how do we prepare for growth?” said Cook.

Sheriff Cook is looking to hire part-time deputies to provide more coverage and expand the sheriff’s office its access to camera systems at private businesses.

“To sort of have an omni presence especially in those areas where we don’t have a whole lot of presence right now,” she said.

Neighbor Shirley Harris said she’d like to see more of a police presence by undercover deputies.

“Unmarked cars, deputies on the street, and in communities and apartment complexes,” said Harris.

One of the first things Cook did when she took the helm was bring in a team of experts to analyze the agency’s strengths and weaknesses.

“That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of in regard to transition, is really taking the time and having the time to fully dive into what was happening,” said Cook.

She said the group helped clean-up redundancies and highlight needed improvements to an aging detention facility.

As she looks ahead to 2021, one of her main priorities is building relationships within the community.

“I’m a big believer in genuine relationships, you cannot build relationships in a crisis,” said Cook.

Local Tamar Davis said that’s a crucial part of policing.

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“Just getting out and talking to the community, going to the neighborhoods with a high crime, more police presence,” said Davis.

Action News Jax asked Sheriff Cook if having a more diverse group of deputies will help to improve trust between the community and the sheriff’s office.

While she agrees diversity is key, it’s not the only solution.

“It’s really about building both. Building a diverse membership here, a diverse group of deputies that serve our community but at the same time you have to be building those relationships. They can’t happen in silos; they have to happen in tandem,” said Cook.