New Tavares female police chief is a first for the city

Sarah Coursey is a 3rd generation Tavarian

Newly-sworn in Tavares police Chief Sarah Coursey is the first woman to become the top cop in her city and only the second in all of Lake County.

TAVARES, Fla. – Newly-sworn in Tavares police Chief Sarah Coursey is the first woman to become the top cop in her city and only the second in all of Lake County.

And her biggest inspiration is quite little — just 9 years old.

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When she was sworn in at the beginning of September, the mayor called it a day “we haven’t had in 21 years.” But the moment Coursey’s new badge was pinned on her was 9 years in the making.

Her daughter had the honor. The pair had practiced many times to make sure it would go perfectly.

“Truly my daughter, 9 years ago, because of her I’m not the same person I was 9 years ago,” Coursey said. “I live life through a different lens. So to have her be able to put the chief’s badge on, it’s kind of hard to find the words.”

Coursey said as a third generation Tavares native, she’s seen the city grow tremendously. And she has grown with her city.

“Tavares was small hometown America, there was nothing going on. The sidewalks rolled up at 8 p.m. on a Friday night, the kids didn’t have anything to do, you might see a cop car drive by every once in a while,” Coursey said. “Now we’re a city of firsts. We’re America’s Seaplane City. We have a thriving entertainment district. The cops are involved in the community now. So the difference I see is that we can make all the difference, us being there, involved. We can keep the same small town feeling as the city continues to grow. But I’ve seen so much change and I’ve seen so much good change. The police are the community and the community are the police. A lot of our department grew up here in Tavares. A few went to Tavares High School just like me. And they want to be part of that positive change and they want to help their community.”

Coursey went to elementary, middle and high school in Tavares, earned her Master’s degree and worked her way up through the police ranks.

“These are my family and friends,” Coursey said. “Growing up here I can’t walk down the street without seeing somebody I know. You go to a store, you see a friend of a friend or family member or someone that knows my parents, a cousin, or somebody I went to school with. We still have that dynamic. So for me to maintain that is of utmost importance.”

But she never planned or expected to become the chief, especially not the first female to lead the department.

“I worked for my dad’s construction company, I got to dig footers, I didn’t want to sit behind an office desk,” Coursey said. “So it was ‘you can do what you want through hard work and dedication.’ I never put emphasis on the female aspect of it, that’s not how I was raised. However the fact that I’m a mom to a little girl, I have pride in that so I can show her that she was with me while I put myself through college. I was a single mom for 5 years. So she saw the dedication, the perseverance while I juggled a full-time job.”

Coursey said as the department’s former public information officer, she learned the importance of transparency and that it reinforces trust.

“Being a PIO I understand that information is needed from all sides,” Coursey said. “We can’t hold all the cards, we need the community, we need the media, and we can all work together to make our city safer and citizens more informed and we stay transparent and they see what we’re doing. There is no magic behind the curtains.”

Coursey said she’s committed to connecting with her community and expanding the officers’ outreach, adding programs like “Tacos with TPD” and “Oysters with Officers.”

She’s emphasizing the importance of training — proper training — and starting peer support training where a counselor meets with officers and their spouses to make sure the officers are staying mentally healthy.

And Coursey said she learned a lifelong lesson a decade ago about the how easily trust can be broken when she was a young officer and put a controversial post on Facebook that the Secret Service investigated as a possible threat against former President Barack Obama.

“To me you’re not the same person you were 2 years ago, so 10 years ago, man I’ve changed and learned from those mistakes,” Coursey said. “And I can use those mistakes to make myself better and prevent other people from making mistakes. We talked about training — I’ve been to countless trainings and I use mistakes as an example, be careful, you’re in an information world and you might say something taken out of context. And it can be looked at in a bad way. You might not have meant what it looked like but be cognizant and help other people not fall in the same pitfalls.”

Coursey said having worked alongside so much of the department staff and having served so many of the City’s citizens for so much of her life, she can’t let them down. This promotion is personal.

And she knows her 9-year-old is also counting on her.

“I hope it sets an example for her to live by,” Coursey said. “I’m so proud that she always knows that I’ve worked hard to provide her a better life. I will do my best to make everybody proud.”

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About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.