It isn’t every day that a police officer gets a standing ovation.
But that’s exactly what Niceville Police Chief David Popwell experienced when he appeared before the Florida House of Representatives on Thursday as the House’s Law Enforcement Officer of the Day.
“It’s really quite an honor,” said State Rep. Patt Maney, who nominated Popwell for the recognition. He explained that since the legislative session is limited to 60 days (minus Saturdays and Sunday and holidays), only a small number of law enforcement officers from across the state can be included in the program.
“Ultimately, the speaker of the house chooses who receives the honor,” Maney said. “But the entire leadership is very supportive of law enforcement, as you can see by the ovation they gave to Chief Popwell.”
The reception he received at the state capitol building was a bit overwhelming for Popwell, a veteran of both the Niceville Police Department and the U.S. Air Force.
“I was completely shocked,” he said. “Before the ceremony at the opening of the session, Speaker (Paul) Renner met with me, and afterward a bunch of folks came up and shook my hand. It was a heck of an honor.”
Maney said he nominated Popwell for the honor because he appreciates the chief’s leadership philosophy.
“Niceville is a unique place,” he said. “Chief Popwell has placed an emphasis on community relationships as a way to affect change within the community.”
Maney pointed to an incident that took place in 2021 as evidence of Popwell’s emphasis on building bonds with the community. The department had received calls about a business “soliciting donations” and violating licensing codes. The “business” turned out to be a children’s lemonade stand.
“The responding officer gave the girls $100, and the department organized a water balloon fight between officers and the children,” Maney said in a statement. “In 2022, Niceville was ranked as the Safest City in Florida. These are just two examples of the remarkable job Chief Popwell and the Niceville Police Department are doing for their community.”
Popwell joined the NPD as an auxiliary member in 2002. Over the next nine years, he rose through the ranks, serving as a patrolman, highway traffic officer, traffic homicide investigator, criminal investigator, Emergency Services Team member and leader, hostage negotiator, and a member of the VIP Protective Service Team. In 2011 he was promoted to chief.
Among Popwell’s proudest achievements are graduating from the FBI National Academy, earning a master’s degree in criminal justice, and establishing a K-9 unit and a SWAT team. He’s happy that the city council has worked with him to improve pay for his 40-plus officers and other staff, which has helped with recruiting and retention of good personnel.
“We’re able to be more selective now,” he said.
While someone with more than 40 years in military and civilian law enforcement might be tempted to rest on his laurels, Popwell says he still has goals he’d like to accomplish.
“With the growth in subdivisions like Deer Moss Creek, I’d like to see us add about 12 more officers over a five- to 10-year period,” he said. “I’d like to see us expand to include different units, such as a marine unit. In addition, I’d like to expand opportunities for our officers to grow, both in education and professionalism.”
Like many leaders, Popwell, a doting grandfather who has been married to his wife, Sallie, for 39 years, said he is also concerned about creating a succession plan to ensure that his legacy remains intact.
“When I retire, I don’t want the city to have to do a nationwide search to find my replacement,” he said. “We’re working hard to develop leaders within the department who can take over and build on our success.”
Niceville-area Representative Patt Maney (Left), Niceville Police Chief David Popwell (Center) and Florida Speaker of the House Paul Renner.