By Martie Thompson
It’s often said that timing is everything. With new St. Johns County Sheriff Rob Hardwick’s career spanning military service and a variety of law enforcement positions, he believed the timing was right in 2020 for a new challenge. He decided to run for the office of sheriff upon the retirement of long-time Sheriff David Shoar and won nearly 70 percent of the vote in the Primary Election followed by another victory in the General Election in November.
“I’d like to thank voters for their overwhelming support,” Hardwick said. “I’m not going to let them down. The sheriff’s office will be involved in the community like never before.”
Hardwick moved with his family to St. Augustine as a young boy when his father decided to move his business, Hardwick Fence, to the area. He attended Catholic schools and graduated from St. Joseph Academy, where he met his wife, Kendall, whom he calls his “best friend.” The couple will celebrate their 30th anniversary in April and have two adult sons: Cole, a graduate of Florida State University and law school graduate who works locally, and Brett, a Flagler College graduate who is a Chinook helicopter pilot in the Florida National Guard.
Career-wise, Hardwick’s experience is diverse. Upon graduation from St. Joseph Academy, he went into active duty with the US Army. As a paratrooper, his first combat tour was with the 82nd Airborne during Desert Storm. He served four years and then went into the reserves with the Florida National Guard. He came home, got married to high school sweetheart Kendall, began taking college courses (something he did part time for several years before finally earning a bachelor’s degree from Flagler College and a Masters from Barry University) and started working in the Florida Department of Corrections at the Tomoka Correctional Institute in Daytona Beach. He said this was his “first taste” of the corrections aspect of law enforcement and it remains a priority for him to this day.
While he enjoyed working at the jail, he felt he could make a difference as the first contact rather than after incarceration, so he became a deputy with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office and obtained experience with law enforcement.
“That was actually my first time wearing green,” he said, referring to the uniform color of county sheriff deputies in Florida.
His career continued with a stint with the St. Augustine City Police Department in the mid-1990s. He enjoyed police officer work and helping families and eventually moved to a bicycle unit.
“That was possibly the best job I had in my career,” he said. “It is truly ‘in your face’ policing, with no car to protect you and I found it very satisfying.”
Hardwick was moved to the detective unit, where he worked closely with the State Attorney’s office and often testified in court cases. This would lead to his next position — but a reactivation by the Florida National Guard in 2003 to go to war in the Middle East delayed those plans by nearly two years.
“I was actually hired by the State Attorney as assistant chief investigator while I was deployed,” Hardwick said. “They swore me in over the phone from the country of Jordan.”
His most recent position before he became St. Johns County’s new sheriff was as head of the St. Augustine Beach Police Department. During his tenure, the agency was accredited and re-accredited each year for his eight years.
“I felt I left the agency in a better position than I received it,” Hardwick said of his decision to move on.
Now as sheriff of St. Johns County, Hardwick has begun the task of molding SJSO into his vision. A believer in efficient command structures as a result of his military experience, Hardwick has five directors who report directly to him (Patrol, Criminal Investigation, Jail, Operations, and General Services) instead of a single undersheriff.
He cites the challenges of COVID as well as the rapid growth of St. Johns County (even during the pandemic) as reasons that efficiency and better processes are part of his vision. Relationships between the Sheriff’s Office with the Board of County Commissioners, the St. Johns County School Board, local businesses and the faith community are all key, he said.
“I want to make sure we have the best partnerships with all these groups and everybody knows we are ‘all in,’” he said.
Hardwick says he is a leader by “walking around” and has already walked the jail and ridden on patrol. Dealing with the mental health crisis is a priority. Among other initiatives, he plans to target human trafficking and drugs that are coming through the county on Interstate 95 as well as institute a pilot program for body cameras early this year.
In his spare time, Hardwick continues to coach youth sports, even after his children have become adults.
“I love to mentor young kids,” he said.
Photo courtesy Caitee Hawker
Rob Hardwick and family on the morning of his swearing in as St. Johns County Sheriff, Jan. 5, 2021.