Meet John Lamb: Assistant chief from Jacksonville Sheriff's Office wants to be next Flagler sheriff
I met John Lamb at a dining table at the Hilton Garden Inn on Aug. 27, after a luncheon that he had attended. He was running on four hours of sleep, after having gone to bed at 5 a.m. He was born in Jacksonville, lives in Jacksonville and works for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (more about that later) on a late shift, so we weren’t able to meet at his home. He wore an expensive-looking lavender dress shirt, and his salt-and-pepper hair was trimmed and styled.
Lamb’s current position at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is lieutenant. He requested a demotion from his position of assistant chief so that he would have a schedule more conducive to running his campaign.
(Note: Actually, "requested a demotion" isn't all that accurate of an interpretation of what he said, as I later found out. He resigned as assistant chief when a new sheriff was elected. Like all the other assistants, he was interviewed to see if he would retained as an assistant and was not selected to keep his job. But, he said, even if he had been retained as an assistant chief, he would have probably declined it so that he'd have time to campaign.)
A Republican, he has filed with the Supervisor of Elections Office in a quest to become the next Flagler County sheriff. The Republican primary will be held Aug. 30, 2016.
Mom the nun
I asked about his parents, and he laughed and said, “You’re going to like this.”
His mother is a nun. She lives in an Episcopalian convent in Harlem. Before becoming a nun, she was a graphic designer for Stage Bill, which created advertising for Broadway shows. He never knew his father; his parents divorced when Lamb was about 2 years old. She remarried when Lamb was about 5, but then got divorced again when he was 16. He said the family changes made him more independent, as well as more dedicated to make his own marriage last, and that has worked, he said. His 24th anniversary is Aug. 31.
Boot camp and police academy
Lamb played French horn in the marching band and also played soccer in high school. “I was respectful but outspoken, if that’s possible,” he recalled. “I was always that kid who said, ‘OK, I get what you’re telling me, but maybe this way would work better?’”
He continued playing soccer at what is now called Florida State Community College, in Jacksonville. He joined the Navy Reserves in 1990, thinking he’d want to become a nurse in the Navy. While at boot camp, he was assigned to be an education officer, so he was charged to stand in front of 60 people and help prepare them for an upcoming test.
At this point, he was still not thinking that he’d want to ever go into law enforcement as a career, he said, but he started to recognize a few things: He saw value in the military chain of command, the camaraderie, the discipline, the structure. And as he stood in front of the classroom, he found that he had some leadership ability.
At the jail, on the road
That led him to consider law enforcement, and he entered the academy to work at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. He became dual-certified for road patrol, as well as in corrections, and his first job came at the jail, in 1993.
“I learned really quickly to talk to the inmates,” he said. He recalls walking the floor and having feces and urine thrown at him. “That was a daily occurrence. I learned to dodge it very well.”
He said he gained the nickname “RoboCop” because he was fair to everyone. That paid off when one mentally ill inmate flooded the toilet in a cell; the inmate had to be removed.
While the inmate was out of the cell, Lamb removed one of the handcuffs, and, Lamb recalled, “he swung at me, and the fight’s on. I’m fighting for my life.” The inmate tore Lamb’s uniform trying to pull off Lamb’s badge and use the 3-inch pin as a weapon. “He was bloodied, I was bloodied,” Lamb recalled. “Then he started claiming excessive force. But the inmates who witnessed this came to my aid. They said, ‘Officer Lamb did everything he could. He used restraint.’ It was because of that trust that I could do that.”
After nine months at the jail, Lamb was offered a job on road patrol, and he accepted. He learned community policing, working his beat and becoming familiar with all the schools, whom to trust for intelligence, what the traffic problems would typically be. But after about four years, he was looking for something more.
He was transferred to the bicycle unit, and he stayed there for about five years. Cycling became part of his life outside of work, as well, as he trained and competed in prestigious mountain bike races around the state and even an Iron Man race, which comprises a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.2-mile run — all in 17 hours. He also completed four half-Iron Man races.
“It was my escape from all the stress,” he said. “It was physical. You could challenge yourself on distances, see how far you can go. And the camaraderie was great, but a lot of times I liked to clear my mind and go by myself.”
In Lamb’s view, being young at 44 years old and being in good physical shape is an advantage over other candidates in the Flagler Sheriff’s race.
Lamb decided to pursue advancement in the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. To do that, he had to take a written test and also a scenario assessment.
His friends in the agency told him he was too young to even try, he recalled. He was only 28. But out of 450 people who took the written test at that time, Lamb said, he finished first. Then, he completed a sweep, finishing first again out of 168 in the scenarios test.
“That was one of the proudest moments of my career,” he said.
It meant that at 29, he was promoted to sergeant. At 32, after he completed his four-year degree in 2002 at Liberty University, he took another test and was promoted to patrol lieutenant, which is rare for someone of that age in Jacksonville, an agency of 1,600 officers.
As a supervisor of other officers, he said, he focused on their needs and frequently asked them if they enjoyed their job. Then he’d try to address their concerns.
“As an example,” he said, “I had a young officer on my squad, and he said, ‘Sarge, I can’t get into this class that I keep applying for. They keep taking senior officers.’” Lamb then talked to the group in the agency that was offering the class, which was for career development. As it turned out, the admission was typically given based on seniority, so the younger officer didn’t have much of a chance. But Lamb recalled saying, “Wait, you’re taking officers who have been there for years, but how many more years are they going to stay? If you do the younger guys, you develop them early and you benefit for years.” As a result, the teachers of the class made a change and established a more balanced approach regarding seniority, he said.
When Lamb and his wife got married, they decided they wanted to be united at church. So Lamb, whose mother is Episcopalian, converted to Catholicism. “I wanted my wife and I to be combined in our efforts to raise our children — with God as part of it,” he said. “We didn’t want to go to separate churches. I saw that growing up. My mother and my step dad were extremely liberal. They said, ‘If you don’t want to go to church, don’t go to church.’ At 13, I started losing interest.”
He started going to back to church when he met Nanette, but, he said, “I was going through the motions. Even after I converted to Catholicism, I wasn’t involved in the church.”
Then, as his mother did, he went to a retreat that changed his perspective. He became more active. Ultimately, the priest at the church asked him to become a Eucharistic minister, and Lamb agreed. He went to school, got trained, and today, he wears the appropriate robes at Mass. “Every Sunday, I stand before these people and I give them the body of Christ — I’m getting goose bumps just talking about. To me, that’s a great honor.”
Lamb says his faith makes him “appreciate the finer things in life, the small gains. It gives me some time to sit back and contemplate, to turn to prayer before making a decision. I don’t use my position as a supervisor to disciple — that’s not my place. … But the Bible sits on my desk and is there for me or anyone else to read. Prayer is part of my daily routine.”
Lamb’s younger sons also take part in the church, one bearing the cross during Mass, and the other serving at the altar.
Lamb also is active in the Knights of Columbus, where he participates in community charitable efforts.
Lamb spent two years in community affairs, getting experience with closing down drug houses and identifying school kids who needed mentoring. He helped bring programs to the community, including Teen Driver Challenge, Be Brave Gun Pledge, and Stranger Danger Safety.
He was put in charge of Continuous Improvement Unit. He wrote a curriculum to develop leaders within the agency and has made leadership and self-improvement a sort of personal hobby. After he mentioned Six Sigma and several other strategies, I asked him, “How many leadership books do you have in your house?”
He laughed and said, “Well, I have three in my car right now.”
He said he believes in process improvement, not just within the agency, but also in fighting crime. Over the years, he said, the focus
in law enforcement has changed from prevention to investigating. “We’ve become dot chasers, following dots on a map,” he said.
Attention to the troops
Lamb continued to impress, and he was appointed as one of 20 assistant chiefs in the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office in 2010. In that capacity, he was focused on making sure that the leadership didn’t forget the realities of the deputies on the road. Every year, the directors and chiefs were assembled to go over changes to policies. Lamb recalled saying, “With all due respect, we’re about to make a policy change that will affect all 1,000 officers. Has anybody thought to ask if this will be well received? Have we brought in any of the officers to get some feedback?”
He told me, “You need buy-in from the troops. You need to help them understand the purpose and meaning.”
Ultimately, Lamb made a lateral move, remaining an assistant chief, and became a zone commander in 2013. The population in the zone was 192,000, and there were 166 officers under his command. “Very similar to Flagler,” he said.
As an employee for over 20 years now, he is in the process of retiring from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and relocating to Flagler County, where he hopes to be the sheriff for a long time to come.