HELPING OTHERS: Deputy, chaplain living life of service through the Sheriff’s Office

CHRISTINA.KELSO@STAUGUSTINE.COM Deputy Kelly Kemp stands in the courtyard of the St. Johns County courthouse on Wednesday, November 22, 2017.

Some might say the photo says it all.


Submitted by a parent, and posted later to the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, Deputy Kelly Kemp is seated on the tailgate of a pickup truck listening intently to a young man seated next to him.

The boy, the father said in a letter of thanks sent to the Sheriff’s Office, was having a rough start to his school year and a needed a pep talk.

“Deputy Kemp did not hesitate for one second and took him under his wing,” the father wrote. “He spoke with him for quite a bit, while I stood aside. He spoke with him about respect and so many other life lessons.”

The son later asked to send a thank-you card to Kemp.

The Facebook post generated 87 comments, nearly all of them praising the deputy for the work he does.

One woman’s post said the experiences she had with Kemp “weren’t under the best circumstances” but said she was “always impressed by his caring demeanor.”

“I listened to how he spoke to children who were in his community service program,” she wrote. “He always spoke to them with such respect and empathy. He is definitely a genuine man and great role model.”

But Kemp, who serves as the Sheriff’s Office chaplain and heads up the agency’s civil citation program for juvenile offenders, would say he’s just doing what he was called to do and the praise should be directed to God.

“Everything we do is to his glory and his benefit,” Kemp said at the end of an interview earlier this month when he sat down with The Record to talk about his work.

During that roughly hour-long conversation he talked about how he got into law enforcement, the chaplaincy and the civil citations program.

Kemp, who finished his training young, has worked in law enforcement essentially from the first day he was old enough to do so legally.

“I had to wait 15 days to get my certification,” he said.

From there he worked as a reserve officer in Fernandina Beach and with the Florida Park Service for years until one day he heard God speak to him.

“Go and sin no more and preach the gospel through law enforcement,” were the words he said he heard as plainly as if they came from someone sitting next him.

“The next day I got a phone call from Sheriff (Neil) Perry to come in for an interview,” he said.

Perry, who served as St. Johns County Sheriff from 1984 to 2004, hired Kemp as a reserve deputy and to work as the agency’s chaplain. He also worked shifts on patrol and helped with the Police Athletic League, or PAL, teams as well.

St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar hired Kemp full-time shortly after he was elected in 2004.

An ordained minister who studied at Jacksonville Baptist Theological Seminary, Kemp said he spends the majority of his time working with the juveniles in the civil citation program. The rest is split between his chaplain duties and his continued work with PAL.

The civil citation program started under Perry as a way to keep juveniles who find themselves on the wrong side of the law — for minor offenses — out of the criminal justice system, but still having to atone for their mistakes.

Cited rather than charged, all juveniles who find themselves in the program meet with Kemp and their parents at Kemp’s office in the St. Johns County courthouse. There, he speaks with them about discipline and respect and, through an assessment of their situation, determines whether or not they need drug or alcohol counseling or whether they can pay their dues as sentenced through Teen Court.

Either way, Kemp continues to work with the teens, helping them and mentoring them as they complete their community service hours, which can include setting up equipment for PAL games or delivering turkeys to those in need during the holidays.

It is work that Kemp said he sees making a difference even though much of it is not “quantifiable” in any way.

The program, Kemp said, has a low recidivism rate, but even with the handful of those teens who do get in trouble again, there is often something to be thankful for.

He told of one student he had spent a good deal of time with, who, after fulfilling the requirements of the program, got in trouble again for fighting.

He said the teen asked, “Please don’t tell Deputy Kemp, I don’t want him to be disappointed in me.”

“There was obviously a success with that,” Kemp said.

Shoar said Wednesday that Kemp “is always available” and works tirelessly to help others, offering that it is likely his deep faith that sustains the busy schedule.

“He’s able to combine that with his love for children and the youth in this county,” he said. “He’s just a great guy.”

In some ways, Kemp is also the spiritual face of the Sheriff’s Office. He can often be seen at memorial services and ceremonies offering a prayer for the day. But a lot of the other spiritual work gets done behind the scenes, in the hallways and patrol cars of the Sheriff’s Office.

Shoar said the work that he does with the youth combined with what he does to support his fellow deputies has made him an “invaluable” member of the agency.

“He’s just devoted his life to helping other people,” he said.

As chaplain, Kemp works with his colleagues who are having family problems or are dealing with stress from their jobs.

Without forcing the issue of faith, Shoar said, he often just offers quiet support.

“You know Kelly will come in and just ride with them,” he said.

“He’s a nonjudgmental voice and he’s a nonjudgmental ear.”

If a deputy is injured on the job and the family needs to be notified and comforted, “the first guy there is Kelly Kemp,” Shoar said.

Doing that kind of work, for well over a decade now, and offering the type of discreet support that the job demands, has earned Kemp a lot of friends and deep connections with those who have served in the Sheriff’s Office, Shoar said. He is often invited these days to give eulogies at funerals for those who have passed, something indicative of the way he has touched people’s lives.

“He’s become a real integral part of our culture,” Shoar said.