NAPLES — Wearing a striped shirt, suspenders and pants that were just a little too short, the boy in the black and white photograph grins as he aims his shiny toy revolver, seemingly proud to have beaten the photographer to the draw.
By his teenage years, the boy in the black and white photos was an emergency services volunteer in his Bergen County, New Jersey home.
At 11 a.m. Tuesday, on the football field at Golden Gate High School, a fully-grown Kevin Rambosk will be sworn in — in full color — as the seventh sheriff in Collier County’s 86-year history. He takes the reins from outgoing Sheriff Don Hunter, who steps down after 20 years at the agency’s helm and amidst one of the longest sustained declines in total crime in the county’s history.
“It is a huge commitment to the community, and an equally huge impact to your family,” Rambosk said.
Right out of the gate, Rambosk, 54, will be tasked with leading the Sheriff’s Office through what he calls “the single most significant economic downturn since I’ve been in law enforcement.”
Rambosk, who has a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration and an MBA, will have to find a way to keep crime down at a time of increasing desperation while tightening the agency’s financial belt.
Taking over at a time where there is a restriction of resources “is not entirely fair” to Rambosk, Hunter said.
“He’s got four years,” Hunter said. “Fortunately, things are going well for this agency.”
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Kevin Rambosk and his wife Patricia moved to Collier County in 1978.
Rambosk said he was working internal security at Meadowlands Sports Complex in New Jersey when his wife inquired with the Naples police department about a job. Rambosk’s in-laws had recently moved to Naples to retire.
“Once I became familiar with Naples and Collier County, this is where I wanted to be and retire,” he said.
After he was hired, Rambosk began his two-decade rise through the Naples police department ranks. His goal all along was clear, however, he wanted to be a police chief — somewhere.
“That was my goal from the day I started,” Rambosk said.
In 1991 Rambosk was selected as the interim director of community services in Naples and was appointed assistant Naples city manager in 1993. Two years later he fulfilled his goal of being a police chief when he was appointed Naples chief officer.
From 1999 to 2003 Rambosk served as Naples city manager, a job that he said enhanced his administrative abilities.
“That’s why I did it, to broaden my perspective, to develop my skills and to continue to serve the city of Naples,” he said.
But Rambosk’s days in law enforcement were not over.
“I’m not finished with law enforcement,” he said in 1999. “Not yet.”
In 2003, after a 25-year career in Naples, Rambosk jumped ship to the Sheriff’s Office, where he was eventually named undersheriff, Hunter’s second-in-command.
Newspapers articles from the late 1990s indicate that all along Rambosk had his eyes on a bigger prize: Collier County sheriff. Rambosk denies it. It was never implied, Rambosk said, that he would be next in line to be the agency’s top cop.
“I did not come here with that intent,” Rambosk said. “(Hunter) did not hire me with that intent.”
In fact, Rambosk said it wasn’t until late summer of 2007, when Hunter told him he wasn’t running for reelection, that he finally decided run for sheriff.
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After a long and sometimes difficult campaign, during which his opponents accused him of breaking election laws and unethical campaigning, Rambosk was elected Collier sheriff in a landslide in August, winning 74.3 percent of the vote.
“He sampled everything, and then decided on sheriff,” Hunter joked at a ceremony on Monday.
Rambosk campaigned on three issues: safety, community service and innovation. He promises to outfit the agency with technology of the future.
“What we talked about is where we are going,” Rambosk said. “Certainly there are some things that have changed in priority. Specifically, with the challenges ahead, with available operating dollars, budgets for the future, and the continued impact of vacant and foreclosed homes.”
He said the economic crisis will play a more significant role than he anticipated when he first announced his candidacy in October 2007, but added that law enforcement officers excel in crises.
“That’s exactly why I have no concern about our organization serving this community well,” he said.
Rambosk will have more than just a bum economy to deal with as sheriff.
Though Rambosk and Hunter have both said disciplinary problems are no worse at the Collier County Sheriff’s Office than other agencies of the same size, Rambosk’s opponents during the election frequently cited deputy misbehavior stemming from poor morale as a growing agency problem. Stories of deputies being fired are common in the local media.
There have also been allegations of cover-ups within an agency that can sometimes be slow to release information.
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Naples Mayor Bill Barnett worked with Rambosk for years during Rambosk’s stints as police chief and at city hall.
“He’s very low key. He earns respect,” Barnett said of Rambosk. “I haven’t heard anybody bad-mouth Kevin, other than his opponents who were running against him. That’s just politics.”
To be a successful sheriff, Barnett said Rambosk will have to get used to the increased scrutiny.
“When you’re under the gun, when you’re out there in front, he’ll have to be a little more extroverted,” Barnett said. “But that comes with the job.”
Hunter said it took him the better part of two terms to get the agency where he wanted. A discussion with former Sheriff Aubrey Rogers early in Hunter’s tenure helped him deal with some of his frustrations regarding high expectations.
“He said, ‘I know how serious you are. You need to lighten up a little bit,’” Hunter recalled. “You need to know the people in the agency will not care about the agency as much as you do. Don’t expect them to rise to your standard.”
Rambosk said his five years with the Sheriff’s Office should help him hit the ground running. He’s met with almost every agency member during about 150 meetings he’s held since his election, and said most deputies are asking for a challenge.
Residents can expect change at the Sheriff’s Office, but nothing disruptive.
Without a full day under his belt as sheriff, Rambosk is loath to discuss future political ambitions. Ultimately, he said, the office of sheriff is the publics’, and he is entrusted with leading it.
“What I envision is doing the best job I can for the county for as long as they will allow me to stay,” Rambosk said. “Ultimately, it’s in their hands.”