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Tribute to our local heros. The history of the Pasco County Sheriff Office

Sheriffs stand tall in modern, progressive law enforcement, but their roots also run deep into antiquity. The Bible tells us, in the Book of Daniel, chapter 3, verse 2, that when Nebuchadnezzar the king was ready to dedicate a golden image in Babylon he called together the high officials, including princes, governors, captains, judges, counselors and Sheriffs. Some historians have traced the office back to the ancient Roman pro-counsels. Others are persuaded the office may have been derived from Saxon in Germany. It has been said that the word Sheriff came from the Arabic word Sharif, which literally translates as illustrious or noble and signifies an Arab chief or prince.


Ancient England was divided into shires, similar to our counties, and each shire had a boss who was called the reeve. Some researchers claim that these two words were eventually linked into the title, Shire-Reeve, and this evolved into the word Sheriff. Shire-reeves were appointed by noblemen and kings to maintain peace and tranquility – a role that modern Sheriffs are still attempting to fill. Under Norman rule, English Sheriffs gained power not only as law enforcement officials, but also as tax collectors. Sheriffs were mentioned numerous times in the Magna Carta, an ancient English “bill of rights”, and were present when it was signed. Later on they became appointees of the king – an extension of his authority.


There have been attempts to show that America was named for Richard Amerycke, who was the High Sheriff of Bristol, England, in 1503, and while this has not been proven conclusively, there is no doubt that the office of the Sheriff was woven into the political fabric of the colonies during early stages of their development. Apparently the office of Sheriff was transplanted to the North American continent as early as 1634 when the first counties were established in Virginia. Not long afterward, Thomas Jefferson called the office of Sheriff “the most important of all the executive offices of the county”.


During colonial times Sheriffs had ceremonial duties such as announcing the coronation of English kings and queens. They served official papers and when culprits were sentenced it was their duty to carry out the punishment. Miscreants were whipped for “opprobrious language”, and pilloried for perjury.


During the heyday of the “wild west”, Sheriffs became legendary figures and were credited with exploits into which both fact and fiction were carelessly woven.


Many of our residents do not realize that Pasco County has a long and rich history. In fact law enforcement as we know it, actually began when Andrew Jackson (Florida’s first territorial Governor) took title of Florida from Spain on July 17th 1821 and issued the Jackson Ordinance. This created Florida’s initial two counties, with the Suwanee River as the dividing line. Escambia was the western county and St. Johns the eastern with the county seat being in St. Augustine. James R. Hanam was appointed as the first Sheriff of St. Johns County. Although what was later to become Pasco County was within his jurisdiction, it is unkown if Sheriff Hanam ever set foot in our part of the state. It is reported that after only two years in office Sheriff Hanam went broke after complaining of insufficient funding, quit his office and later went missing.


In 1834, Hillsborough County was established being comprised of a large area of the state which today is made up of seven counties. Through the ensuing years individual counties were divided from Hillsborough and in 1843 Hernando County was created being made up of what today includes Pasco and Citrus County. As population and needs increased, Pasco, Citrus and Hernando were split, with all becoming individual counties in 1887.


Our first Sheriff James A. Grady was appointed and served until 1891 (a chronological listing of all Pasco Sheriffs is linked to this site). In 1889 Dade City was chosen as the county seat with our first county jail being built in 1892 on 10th Street in Dade City. Although this structure is no longer owned by the county it still stands and is the private office of a local business. Investigation has determined that it originally may have consisted of three cells and a separate living area for the sheriff and his family. As Pasco County was a thriving and growing center for area agriculture a new jail was built in 1909 and incorporated along with offices for the sheriff in what is today the historic Dade City Courthouse.


During this period and on through the 1940’s the Sheriff’s Office employed fewer than ten personnel with most of those being part-time deputies. By the 1950’s population growth created the need for several permanent full-time deputies. Sheriff Leslie Bessenger employed Leland Thompson to patrol Dade City and the adjoining areas, Lance Edgeman was responsible for Zephyrhills and Basil Gaines served the entire remainder of the county westward through Land-O-Lakes to the coastal areas of Hudson, New Port Richey and Holiday. In later years both Deputy Thompson (see related article) and Gaines went on to be elected to serve as sheriffs of our county.


As an interesting side note resident deputies such as those living and working in the outlying areas as Land-O-Lakes, Hudson and New Port Richey worked out of their homes. They were on call 24 hours a day, received $350.00 per week and had to provide their own patrol vehicle. In fact, deputies were still required to provide a vehicle through the late 1960’s. Resident deputies were dispatched to calls for service from home by their wives who received $100.00 per month for this service.


The year 1956 was notable in our history as for the first time the Sheriff’s annual budget exceeded 100,000 dollars ($104,000). Sheriff Leslie Bessenger was roundly criticized for what county leaders characterized as runaway spending in government. As the growth continued and in particular the coastal area of the county, a new courthouse annex was established in 1961 on Sunset Road in New Port Richey. This building contained cells for twenty inmates, sheriffs administrative and operations offices and a west-side communications dispatch center. In 1966 the Sheriff’s Office in Dade City moved from the historic Courthouse to its own building located in Dade City on North 5th Street. Administration, Operations and Detention were incorporated in this building, 124 inmates could be housed in the facility.


Pasco County and the Sheriff’s Office experienced its first period of explosive growth from the 1960’s through the 1970’s where by 1977 it had grown in size to 210 employees with 135 of those being sworn deputies. By 1981 with growth in the county still on the increase a new Sheriff’s administration building and detention complex was completed in New Port Richey at the Government Center on Little Road. As our citizens are keenly aware this growth continued ultimately creating the need for our most recent detention complex on S.R. 41 in Land-O-Lakes. This state of the art facility was completed in 1991 with an initial design capacity of 352 inmates and expansion capabilities to house 1,000 inmates.


Pasco County today remains a vibrant and active community that both looks forward to future growth and challenges while looking back on a history that is colorful and rich in character. Our mission to better serve the citizens of Pasco and prepare for the future is aided by having an understanding and familiarity of our past and place in history.