When Citrus County Sheriff Mike Prendergast handpicked the 26-year lawman Justin Ferrara to command his agency’s Bureau of Law Enforcement Operations as a major in early May, Ferrara accepted without hesitation.
“I’m excited, ecstatic,” Ferrara said. “Everything’s a challenge, and I love a challenge.”
"Major Ferrara accumulated a wealth of knowledge from the vast array of progressively challenging and critically important assignments he has held within the Citrus County Sheriff's Office, making him the ideal person to assist me in leading this agency in the years to come,” Prendergast said in a statement.
In his new role, Ferrara will oversee the duties of sheriff’s deputies for the county and its two cities, the agency's public service officers, victim advocates, detectives, narcotics investigators, bailiffs, school resource officers, crime scene technicians, accreditation and training.
Ferrara left his prior rank as captain over the sheriff’s office's special operations divisions, which managed units — specialty teams, animal control officers, volunteers, and fleet maintenance — that each required similar levels of administrative attention.
“It’s tons and tons of paperwork,” he said, “but I came from a division where it was tons and tons of paperwork.”
Maj. Danny Linhart, Ferrara’s predecessor, retired May 17 after serving 26 years with the sheriff’s office, but not before mentoring Ferrara on how he did things.
Ferrara said he hopes he can evolve and improve the foundation that was laid by his predecessors.
“When you have a different set of eyes, you’re always looking at different things that you can build upon,” he said. “Major Linhart did a fantastic job at establishing a bunch of great things, and it’s only fair to build upon the great things he’s already done.”
Ferrara also wants to make sure the lessons he learned doing his previous job are passed on to his successor, Capt. Dave Vincent.
“The challenge is to make sure all of that goes smoothly and nothing’s lost,” Ferrara said.
Ferrara said one of his priorities is to strengthen the relationships between the agency's entities by encouraging employees to learn more about what other departments do.
“If we don’t communicate every single day, we’re going to lose out. ... A deputy is one cog of major machine,” he said. “Everyone has an important role in the sheriff’s office.”
Ferrara grew up alongside two brothers in New York. Their late father and U.S. Air Force veteran, Anthony “Sonny” Ferrara, urged them to become cops, especially for the job security, Ferrara said. It worked: He and his siblings all have careers in law enforcement.
In 1984, when he was 14, Ferrara and his family moved to Citrus County. Ferrara attended Lecanto High School, while his parents ran Ferrara’s Italian Deli and Pizza in Beverly Hills until its closure in 2014.
Ferrara later headed to Gainesville to study Criminal Justice at the University of Florida, and paid his way through by working security at area stores.
He said he graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree on a Saturday and went into the Santa Fe Police Academy that upcoming Monday to join up with the Gainesville Police Department in 1993, at 21 years old.
Ferrara patrolled the city for two years before going into narcotics, his favorite beat.
“Nothing was more exciting to me than working undercover; it’s the most exciting element of law enforcement, hands down,” Ferrara said. “I could write a book.”
Ferrara made a decision several years later to move back to Citrus County to help care for his parents. It didn’t take long for him to pursue a career with the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO), an organization he already respected.
“Seeing how the agency was and seeing how this organization ran; how everyone knew everyone, how the community was involved with the sheriff’s office ... is what made me say, ‘Hey, I’m not leaving,’” he said.
In 2000, CCSO hired Ferrara into its narcotics unit. After three years of that work, Ferrara left for just under a year to do electrical work with his family.
He returned to the sheriff’s office around the time the agency absorbed the Inverness Police Department, and was chosen — due to his background in city patrols — to work the Inverness streets.
“A lot of city policing is aesthetics,” Ferrara said. “Everything is so tightly knit; businesses are closer, residents are close together.”
Ferrara soon found himself back in narcotics as the county tried to deal with an explosion of illegal prescription pills, and eventually became captain over sheriff's patrols on the county's eastern half.
He and his colleagues established CCSO’s Tactical Impact Unit, or TIU, a multifaceted group of deputies that proactively investigate sources of crime, especially drug labs and dens.
Ferrara also helped integrate intelligence-led policing, a crimefighting practice that looks at targeting the small percentage of known and tracked wrongdoers in order to curb the need for deputies to respond constantly to their offenses.
“It’s more of a theory,” Ferrara said. “Throughout time, we implemented it, and we’re working on a very similar model today.”