He’s known as “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” but Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County, Florida, said he’s “tougher on himself” than anyone he has ever arrested.
“I hold myself to a higher standard,” Judd said in a recent interview at the Polk County Jail. “I always said that I never wanted to do anything that would embarrass my Mama, my wife, or my children.”
The sheriff has garnered national attention in television interviews because of some colorful and memorable quotes that can now be found on the backs of T-shirts at online shops. There’s also a YouTube rap video titled “Ducking Grady,” in which the sheriff made an appearance.
The video was written, performed, and directed by Cedric Wilson, a Lakeland resident who was once a regular at Judd’s jail. He’s now reformed and has become a successful business owner.
Wilson told a Tampa television station that he made the 2019 video to help “kids stay out of trouble.”
Judd was in favor of the video because he said it would help “strengthen the relationship between the sheriff’s office and the community.”
He’s lived in the community he serves all of his life.
“This community has been good to me, and I will continue to be good to it. After all, they [voters] keep me here for a reason,” Judd said.
He’s famous for insightful press conferences where he proudly “outs” criminals for their behaviors that land them in the confines of his accommodations–the Polk County Jail, or what Judd refers to as “our Crossbar Hotel.”
“I’m sure if you walk into that jail and ask what they think of me, you will get some who just hate me,” he said. “However, there are some that will tell you that at least I’m a fair person.”
Judd is particularly concerned about crimes “against children, the infirm, and the elderly.”
Polk County is famous for catching pedophiles and cracking human trafficking cases.
Judd has a cyber team that works to lure and catch predators before they can “hurt anyone else,” he said.
“Don’t bring that to Polk County,” he warned. “We will catch you and you will go to jail—I look for predators every day.”
He said that even though Polk County is known for catching pedophiles, they continue to come because the “need to do what they do is stronger than getting caught.”
Judd, who is entering his 49th year of working in law enforcement, said, “It was all I ever wanted to do.”
In 1958, then-4-year-old Grady Judd was always fascinated with red flashing lights, he recalled.
“Since then, red lights have been replaced with blue ones, in my field,” he said as he chuckled remembering the event. “But I remember as a little child, those red lights would just reel me in.”
Judd said his mother recognized the fascination he had with everything police and bought him a small police uniform. As the years went by, he grew out of the little uniform, but just replaced it with bigger ones as he got older, he said.
The 68-year-old sheriff said that looking back, he has lived a “good life” and credits his character and the “man he is today” to his upbringing.
“I was raised in the church,” he said. “We were sometimes the first to arrive at the church and the last ones to leave.”
Judd’s father was a minister of music, and his mother was a stay-at-home mom—because “that is the way his father wanted it.”
“My father worked two jobs to make sure my mother didn’t have to work and could stay home to look after the home and the family.”
The Judd home, he said, didn’t have air conditioning, and the telephone was set up on a party-line system. He described his family’s economic status as “meager” and said it keeps him “humble.”
Judd credits his father’s example for his own work ethic. He began his law enforcement career as a dispatcher, but the more he worked at the station, the more he wanted to be an officer.
“I wanted to be out there on the road with those guys,” he said. “But I knew I had to work hard to prove myself.”
However, as the saying goes, behind every successful man there is a woman; it’s a statement that Judd agrees with, as he has been married to his “high school sweetheart,” Marisa, since they were 18.
“People didn’t give us much hope, getting married at such a young age,” he said. “But we have made it last because we support one another. She is my biggest cheerleader and my biggest critic.
“She took over where Mom and Dad left off,” he said with a laugh. “We have an immense amount of trust in one another—and with that trust, the world just unfolded in front of me.”
Along with a new marriage, a new career emerged as Judd began to realize his lifelong dream of becoming a law enforcement officer. Judd the dispatcher moved on to the academy to realize his dream of becoming a sheriff’s deputy.
However, attending the academy didn’t pay the bills, he said. After classes, Judd continued his job as a dispatcher at the sheriff’s office, working from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. He said he would only sleep three or four hours a day.
“I was a hard worker,” he said. “I knew eventually it would pay off.”
After graduating from the academy, he said the department “put him on the road” in a patrol car at the tender age of 19.
He said that the department only provided his pants, shirt, and gun belt. He had to purchase everything else.
But there was one problem. The gun laws didn’t allow him to buy a firearm; he had to be 21, according to federal law.
“My father had to buy my gun and ammunition,” he said. “I was not 21 yet. I was old enough to work for the sheriff’s office, carry the gun and even fire it, I just couldn’t buy it.”
Judd rapidly flew up the ranks and became a corporal at the age of 22, a sergeant by 23, a lieutenant at 25, a captain when he was 27, and a major at 34. He ran for a vacated sheriff seat in 2004, and more than half the voters in the county elected him, and he’s been there ever since.
Entering his 18th year as sheriff of Polk County, Judd was elected by more than 95 percent of the vote in 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020.
His resume consists of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and he has graduated from the FBI National Academy.
For 23 years, he has taught at both the University of South Florida and Florida Southern College.
Judd said he has been asked to run for higher office, but said he doesn’t “have the patience for the legislative process.”
“I could have won; all the polls indicated that, but as I’ve said in the past, just let me be sheriff,” he said.
Because Judd was raised in the church, he has maintained his faith over the years and allowed it to be his “guiding light.”
Behind the badge, there’s a soft side to Judd. For example, he said he can’t fathom the idea of some child waking up on Christmas Day without a gift from their mother, especially if she’s in his jail.
That prompted Judd to begin a charity program, funded by donors, that benefits members of the community.
“I went into the area of the jail where the females are kept and ask them if they have children at home,” Judd said. “We get their names, sizes, and ask a little about them. Then we go out and shop for that child.”
Judd said often the same officer who arrested the mother of the children is the one who returns to the home bearing Christmas gifts.
“We always tell the kids, when we deliver the gifts, that the gift is from their mother. We say, your Mama wanted you to have this.”
The same charity also funds other things. If a child has their bike stolen, the charity will buy them a new one, he said.
It also funds the toys that deputies carry in their patrol cars.
“Sometimes we go out to domestic situations, and if a child is upset or traumatized, the deputy will pull out a toy in order to help soothe the child and establish trust.”
Judd said that all of these efforts go into relationship-building with the community, and these ideas have “never been needed more than today.”
“When rioters were burning down Portland and other cities, and when everyone wanted to defund the police, we didn’t have that in Polk County,” he said.
“Our citizens were building us up. They put their arms around us. I would drive into the parking lot of the jail and there would be signs placed all around the property with messages of support.”
Judd said he ends his day praying for the deputies working at night to return safely to their families.
“Then I ask myself, what can I do to help people?”
Judd said he has worked to make his community strong and boasts of a 44-year-low crime rate. He credits that to people in the county taking responsibility for watching after one another.
“I have always known what I was called to do. I know this is where God wants me to be.”