Bluffton's new police chief believes technology will drive the future of law enforcement but feels the human touch goes a long way toward keeping a community safe.
"The best thing for me about being a police officer is engaging the community, getting out there, talking with them," said Chief Joe Manning, who was promoted in late June. "It's finding out what they see as some of the issues they are facing and then seeing how we can fix their problems."
A native of Pinellas County, Fla., Manning was inspired to join law enforcement because of the officers he met as a teenager while working at a restaurant.
"Nobody in my family was connected with law enforcement except an uncle. I got to talking with a lot of deputies who came in to the restaurant. That's what steered me in that direction," Manning said. "I wanted to make a difference in my community and I thought the best way to do that was get into law enforcement."
Manning joined the Pinellas County Sheriff's office in 1984. "Early on, as a young police officer, we don't listen to both sides of a story, of an argument," Manning said. "You get there, you immediately get the sense of what happened and you make that arrest."
The young officer learned some valuable lessons as he worked his way up through the ranks. Primary among them was learning to listen. "Sometimes you don't need to make that arrest," he said. "You need to sit back and listen to both sides."
Manning and his family visited Beaufort County in February 2013, for a Parris Island Marine Corps graduation, and fell in love with the area. When he later saw the ad placed by then-Chief Joey Reynolds for the opening as Bluffton's deputy police chief, Manning applied.
He was hired later that year. It was the first time he had left Florida for a job.
"When I came here four years ago, Chief Reynolds and I talked about his plans in the future and his hope was to groom me to be his successor," Manning said. He considers his promotion to chief to be his biggest career success.
Manning said he is impressed by the support from the Bluffton community. "I've been doing this job for 33 years. I'm not taking anything away from Pinellas County but I have never seen a community embrace a law enforcement community so much," he said. "This region is very connected to law enforcement. The respect that we get and the support we get are just incredible."
Manning expects future technology to have a great impact on police work. "I think technology is just going to drive law enforcement in ways we haven't seen before, with body cameras and in-car cameras, for example," he said. "It used to be you had to go out and buy a $300 to $400 camera to record information. Now everybody has a phone with a nice camera."
Technology might drive many aspects of police work now and in the future, but both officers and citizens still have one key responsibility: being involved.
One program Manning anticipates starting is aimed at reducing accidents of all kinds, not just serious ones. Getting distracted and impaired drivers off the streets is a top priority.
On the personal side, Manning said he "absolutely loves college football," but there might be a bit of a challenge as he mingles with local residents.
"I'm a Florida State fan," he said, "but I'm starting to come around to the South Carolina-Clemson ways."
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.