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Capt. Matt Powell retires after 30 years

December 26, 2017
Jessica Salmond - News Editor (jsalmond@breezenewspapers.com) , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

When somebody refers to law enforcement on the beach, it usually sounds something like this: "Captain Powell and the Lee County Sheriff's Office."

Matt Powell has served the department for 30 years and is retiring Dec. 30.

"I've been honored to be able to serve the Fort Myers Beach community," he said.

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Captain Matt Powell has worked for the Lee County Sheriff's Office for 30 years and has spent many of those years as Fort Myers Beach's go-to man for problems on the beach.

Powell, 52, is a Fort Myers native. He joined the U.S. Coast Guard for four years and then went into the Lee County Sheriff's Office shortly after, joining the force in 1988.

"When I first started, it was about catching bad guys," he said. "It was nice going from call to call. I enjoyed helping people."

Powell said when he joined in the 80s, the Sheriff's Office's biggest crime trend was drugs. It was different fighting drugs back then - people were telling them out on the street, but now, everyone's connected online or on their cell.

Powell's first experience out on the beach was during a training session in the peak of spring break season. He was working out of what was the Bonita Springs substation at the time, and said spring break back then was a lot crazier than now.

"It's a lot more tame now," he said.

His training session brought him in close quarters with the spring break craze. He thought that's what police work would be like all the time - always on, always something happening.

But at that time, his work on Fort Myers Beach was only temporary.

"I was 22, my lieutenant told me 'you're not working on the beach,'" he said, adding his commander was talking about his age.

Instead, he learned about what police work was like outside of spring break. He was on patrol in San Carlos Park, going from call to call. Sometimes it would be a simple issue, sometimes he got to interrupt a burglary in progress.

Powell spent time in multiple areas of the agency, but the beach was always nearby for him. He bought property and lived on the beach for 10 years while he was in the narcotic unit, during which he would work odd hours, come home and run out on the beach at night, when all was quiet.

"It was really cool, running on the beach at night. No one was around, and you could hear dolphins splashing around," he said.

When the town incorporated, it wanted a liaison with the Sheriff's Office, and Powell's captain at the time, Kenny Erne, nominated him for the job. Even though he maintained a low-key profile while living on the beach, Powell had begun making connections.

He started attending meetings and events to learn what concerns residents had for their island in terms of law enforcement.

"There were some law enforcement issues, but they were easy fixes. A lot of it was quality of life issues," he said. "Those are usually fixed with common sense and being a neighbor."

Eventually, his connection to the beach put him in line to a promotion to be the captain for the west district, which includes Fort Myers Beach. He became the face of the agency for the island - he came to meetings and events, talked about law enforcement issues for panels, and would help out his deputies whenever needed.

He even had a few crazy calls: once, a group of German tourists called in because there was an alligator in the pool at the Outrigger. Powell assessed the situation and called a trapper, but he said it was taking an "eternity" for him to show up. He decided to take matters into his own hands - with a rake and a towel he got the 3-foot gator out and subdued, then held him down until the trapper showed up.

"I was wondering what did I get myself into, but (the tourists) had never seen a gator before," he said.

Once he became captain, his patrol days were mostly over but he was still the island's man. From council meetings to community organizations, he was who would show up when the community wanted to talk to someone in law enforcement. He tries to visit the community once a day.

"When I drive down every day, it's a good place to live, work and visit," he said. "I wanted to be a part of keeping it that way."

Working the beach community is in some ways more difficult than other areas of the county. On the beach, deputies have to contend with a variety of personalities and a variety of people: tourists, residents, seasonal dwellers, spring breakers, homeless, international visitors.

"When you're on patrol (other places) and you go through a neighborhood during the day, it's quiet. People are usually at work or away," he said. "But on the beach there are so many things going on."

Criminal activity isn't a top concern for the beach. Most of the time, calls the Sheriff's Office gets concern more with quality of life issues, some within and some outside of the captain's patrol.

"I get stuck in traffic on McGregor every day. No one ever calls me to complain about that," he said. "But I've fielded so many calls about traffic on the beach."

It's a complex island and a complicated role to be the face of law enforcement. Powell has been training up his replacement for the past 6 months.

Captain Rob Casale will be taking over when Powell leaves, and he already knows he's got big shoes to fill.

Casale, 36, has lived in Lee County most of his life. He also spent time in the military, joining the U.S. Army in 2000 and immediately joining the Lee County Sheriff's Office after his service ended in 2004.

When he was in the army, he served in the military police during Operation Enduring Freedom, part of former President George W. Bush's war on terrorism after 9/11.

"The transition was natural, and a childhood dream of mine," Casale said.

He's now been with the Sheriff's Office for almost 18 years, starting under Powell before moving from a few different areas of the agency including eight years in the narcotics division. Then he was promoted to captain to join the beach division.

Casale thinks his role with the beach will be a challenge, but in a good way.

"I'm excited," he said. "The challenge will be to maintain the relationships Captain Powell had and how they respect him. He laid the platform."

He already knows quality of life issues are a top priority for the beach. For the past months, he's been shadowing the beach patrol with Powell to get to know the island, its inhabitants and its visitors, as well as making sure his patrol deputies are the right fit.

"The deputies out here care about the beach. They have to be able to deal with all the types of personalities," Casale said.

Sometimes law enforcement can be its own worst enemy in that regard, Casale said, but on the beach he and his deputies want to first give people the chance to explain themselves. Deputies need to be able to communicate without escalating the situation.

He plans to follow in Powell's footsteps of being present on the island, at events and meetings.

"I'm excited about the challenge," he said. "I'm glad to have had the last 6 months (with Powell). I will be available 24/7 for this community."

Mayor Dennis Boback said Powell's involvement with the beach is what helped him here.

The mayor's worked with the captain while he was on council in 2005 to 2008 and again, now. Although Powell's district covers a much larger part of the county than Fort Myers Beach, Boback said the captain has always been a good steward to the residents here, and proactive to deal with any problems.

"He runs this whole district, it's not just the beach he's in charge of but he's always had a special place for the beach," Boback said.

Powell shows face in the community, and Boback said Casale will have to do the same. Powell was always active on the island, even helping direct traffic in season, and always attends different community functions and meetings, keeping himself familiar with his citizens in the sand.

"It's a different kind of animal down here on the beach that it is in town. Powell is tuned in to what the beach folks want and need," Boback said. "And he's a heck of a nice guy."

 
 

 

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