In 1974 in Miami, a young Stephan Dembinsky was in line to register for his first college classes, but he had no career path in mind.
“I met a guy in line, Jim, and he was a cop. We were talking, and I had an epiphany – something told me I would be a cop,” recalled Dembinsky, Public Safety Director for the City of Daytona Beach Shores. “I’ve never regretted one day in 45 years doing this job. I was lucky.”
Dembinsky, 71, plans to retire from the Shores Department of Public Safety on Oct. 4. He has just completed his year as president of the Florida Police Chiefs Association at that FPCA’s Summer Conference in Palm Beach Gardens.
Originally from northern Canada, Dembinsky moved to Hollywood, Florida, when he was 16. After graduating from Florida International University, he spent a year in corrections in Dade County due to the fact he was not yet a citizen and therefore was not eligible to be a police officer. He became a U.S. citizen in 1977, then started as a patrolman in South Miami for a short time before joining the North Miami Beach Police Department in 1980. He rose through the ranks and retired as Assistant Chief there in 1998.
His wife, Sandi, encouraged him to go for a police chief’s position – and for 24½ years, he’s been Director of Shores Public Safety. The model combines law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services in one department, and most officers are trained in all three first-responder career fields.
In South Florida, Dembinsky said, he was bit, cut, shot at twice, and he shot criminals. His career in Daytona Beach Shores has been primarily management – though its small enough that everyone gets involved in big cases. Dembinsky is proud of the department’s growth and professionalism, the Public Safety model that provides quicker response times that save lives, and the department’s reputation of effectiveness and public service. His main regret is a single unsolved murder.
“My officers save lives almost every day, and I am very proud of them,” he said. “One thing that stands out is the dedication. We ask our personnel to do a lot.”
Dembinsky is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and member of the FBI National Academy Associates – and he’s a proud lifetime member of the Florida Police Chiefs Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He has served on the FPCA Board of Directors for the past 13 years.
With 1,200 members, the FPCA is the third largest association of police chiefs in the United States. The group is active in state legislative affairs, provides training for new and future chiefs and administrative assistances, shares best practices across the state and beyond, and focuses on health and wellness of law enforcement officers. There are 18 districts in Florida, with one district covering Volusia and Flagler counties. The association works closely with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Sheriffs Association.
As president this past year, Dembinsky has met top law enforcement officers from across Florida, and he said, “The issues are the same everywhere.” It’s gotten harder and harder to hire police officers, as pay is not commensurate with the responsibilities of the job and there is more hatred toward police following high-profile cases of excessive use of force by police officers.
Florida’s police chiefs work together on solutions, and departments across the state are dedicated to training and education – and that has created a positive police culture in the state, he said.
One of the Florida Police Chiefs Association’s greatest accomplishments this past year is adoption of the Pillars of Change, which provide dozens of policy and program recommendations to be used at the local and state level to enhance trust, ensure transparency and accountability, and strengthen relationships between the police and the communities they serve.
Dembinsky is a strong proponent of body-worn cameras, and Shores Public Safety Officers have worn them for years. Body-cams consistently prove that most cops are doing a good job, he said. He counsels his young officers to maintain strong ethics and morals – “the one thing you can never survive in policing is if you lie.”
To keep officers and community members safe, Shores Public Safety strives to stay current with technology and training advances, such as upgrading its department handguns with more advanced optical sights to improve safety during officer-involved shootings and incorporating Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a defensive tactic. Ongoing training is critical, and the Shores’ model – with the combination of fire/rescue and policing – requires it. Crime, even large-scale tragedies such as mass shootings, can occur anywhere, Dembinsky said.
“We understand. We’re ready,” he said. “Our officers are trained to take immediate action. I didn’t get into this business to sacrifice my life, but I also didn’t get into this business not to do everything I could to help. You have to do something.”
As he prepares for his upcoming retirement, Dembinsky said he’s looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Sandi, and traveling.
“I’ve been married to Sandi almost as long as I’ve been in law enforcement,” he said. “She has been a rock for me.”
Dembinsky is pleased that Public Safety Capt. Michael Fowler has been selected as the department’s new director. They have worked together for more than two decades, and the transition in leadership will be seamless, he said.