Police

Tough on Crime, Eager for the Limelight: Meet Florida's "Law and Order" Sheriff

Gov. Ron DeSantis stands alongside Sheriff Carmine Marceno as they discuss the Hurricane Ian recovery effort.
Gov. Ron DeSantis stands alongside Sheriff Carmine Marceno as they discuss the Hurricane Ian recovery effort. Photo by Lee County Sheriff's Office
Five days after Hurricane Ian made landfall on Florida's southwest coast, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno held a press briefing in which he all but encouraged people to maim or kill looters in his storm-ravaged community.

"If someone makes that grave mistake and they choose to loot, they might be able to walk into someone's home... But they will be carried out," Marceno said October 3.

He added: "I ain't playing games. We aren't playing games."

Marceno later released the name and personal information of a 14-year-old looting suspect, among other arrestees whom he chided publicly. On October 12, he posted a Hurricane Ian video montage, which ends with a string of mugshots of post-storm arrests, capped off with the phrase "oxygen stealer," his favorite moniker for suspected criminals.

Though Marceno's antics might seem unusual, those familiar with the sheriff know it's all in step with his tough-talking persona. Long before he was thrust into the national spotlight in Hurricane Ian's aftermath, Marceno was using an official Lee County social media page to post self-aggrandizing TikTok videos, at least one of which features him emerging from a dense fog while brandishing an assault rifle.

During police raids, Marceno can be seen hammering down yard signs with his image in the front of suspected drug dens, while proclaiming, "This drug house is closed. We're cleaning up the real estate here."

His mode of transporting suspects is somewhat unconventional as well: he has a paddywagon with the words "Marceno Motel" printed on the back of it — his catchphrase for a local jail. Made-for-television segments are often posted on the Lee County Sheriff's Office social media pages, in which Marceno references the "Marceno Motel" and reveals the county jail's latest "guests" and their respective charges. (Marceno's vehicle collection also features an official sheriff's office ice cream truck, which is emblazoned with a huge graphic print of him surrounded by smiling kids.)
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Sheriff Carmine Marceno has special-made yard signs with his face on them, and a message for alleged drug dealers.
Photo by Lee County Sheriff's Office
While many Lee County residents support Marceno's stunts and praise him for his hands-on work in the disaster zone, others claim that he is engaged in law enforcement propagandism.

It has been hard at times to extricate his theatrical TikTok persona from the man who is delivering heart-rending updates to a community devastated by one of the worst natural disasters to afflict Florida in modern history.

After declining an interview request, Marceno issued a statement  to New Times, saying, "I have zero tolerance for looters and others who prey on our residents during these very difficult times."

He continued: "As the chief law enforcement officer in Lee County, my greatest obligation is to provide safety and security for our great residents, especially during a state of emergency."

"Feel free to move to Portland or Seattle. We don’t want you here."

Born in the Bronx and raised on Long Island, Marceno graduated from a New York police academy in 1997 and began working part-time as a police officer with the Suffolk County Department of Parks the following year. He moved to southwest Florida in the late 1990s and joined the Naples Police Department in November 1999.

Records obtained by New Times show he failed two attempts at the state officer certification exam –– taken in June and July 2000. He stepped away from the Naples Police Department in August 2000 and returned to New York. Though his time as a Naples officer was brief, he received commendations for his friendly demeanor with the public, and an incident in which he helped fellow emergency responders revive a patient in cardiac arrest.

After a few years hiatus from the Sunshine State, Marceno returned to Florida law enforcement in 2003, taking a job with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.

In a series of job interviews, the Collier County Sheriff's Office learned that Marceno had taken an illegal steroid regimen at the age of 18. According to a job interview report, he also engaged his own juvenile acts of theft: stealing food from a grocery store where he worked around age 16, and shoplifting candy as a 10-year-old boy.

Marceno secured a job with the Collier County Sheriff's Office despite the interview report finding that his use of illegal steroids as a young man automatically disqualified him from further job consideration pursuant to the department's strict drug policy. (The report is attached at the end of this article.)
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno has released multiple self-promotional videos donning tactical gear and brandishing assault rifles.
Screenshot from a video by the Lee County Sheriff's Office

The New York native worked for the Collier County Sheriff's Office for more than ten years and received the county's Distinguished Public Servant Award in 2012.

He joined the Lee County Sheriff’s Office as a lieutenant on June 28, 2013, records show, where he rose through the ranks to an undersheriff position. When Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott retired in 2018 after 30 years on the force, Marceno was selected by then-Governor Rick Scott to fill the position.

While Marceno was gaining a following with his hard-on-crime rhetoric and his moniker as Florida’s “Law and Order” sheriff, he faced a messy paternity scandal involving local resident Deanna Williams, which was reported by Fox 4, among other outlets.

Williams and Marceno had a brief relationship while she was pursuing a grand theft case with the Lee County Sheriff's Office in 2018. “The [grand theft case] I reported was, for him, an opportunity to have a relationship,” Williams said in a 2019 interview with the Guardian. “He abused his position."

Williams filed a paternity lawsuit against Marceno in November 2018, claiming he was the father of her unborn child and tried to pressure her to have an abortion. In a formal complaint filed with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), she alleged that he threatened her during her pregnancy. She reported to FDLE that she and her family started receiving terrifying calls during the dispute, including one in which an unknown female caller told her she needed to "have her throat slit and face slashed." 

Marceno denied these allegations. FDLE reviewed Williams' case and found insufficient grounds for a criminal probe into Marceno. Text messages between the pair showed no threats by Marceno; in one message, he says, "I have lived my entire life helping people and never hurt anyone." (The FDLE report is attached below.)

In the 2020 Lee County Sheriff's election, Marceno locked up celebrity endorsements from rock star Ted Nugent and NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal. Jim Williams, a chief of investigations with the Collier Sheriff's Office, told News Press that Marceno was a "natural leader" and deserved to retain his Lee County post. Sean Hannity, who owned a multimillion-dollar mansion in the Naples area where Marceno once worked, backed Marceno as well, calling him a good friend.

Detractors claimed Marceno lacked command experience, and that his background in community policing was inadequate to justify his position at the helm of a sheriff's office in a county of more than 750,000 residents.

Marceno prevailed in the 2020 race, and his status as a local celebrity only grew from there. His public statements took on a more political tone, as he continued building his brand as a hardline conservative gunslinger in the vein of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In June 2022, the sheriff made headlines across the nation when he posted a video and personal information of a handcuffed 10-year-old boy. The kid had been arrested for sending out a text message with pictures he had pulled off the internet of cash and rifles. (Though his parents claimed it was a botched joke, the boy was charged for allegedly making a threat to his school via the text, which he sent days after the Uvalde, Texas, mass shooting. )

In an interview with Steve Doocy on Fox News, Marceno defended his treatment of the 10-year-old and called for a return to what he describes as "old-school" child-rearing practices.

"When I was a kid, the nun hit you with a wooden ruler. You understood what was right and wrong," Marceno said.
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Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno speaks to the media at the scene of a deputy-involved crash.
Photo by Lee County Sheriff's Office

In the wake of the Uvalde shooting — and in the midst of the controversy over his publicizing the perp walk of a 10-year-old boy — Marceno planted his foot firmly the arena of hardline politics. 

"To the great citizens of Lee County... unfortunately, the tragic events in Texas and other parts of the country have unleashed renewed attempts by President Biden — sleepy Joe Biden and his extremist followers — to advance their political agenda," Marceno said, standing near a desk decorated with a blue NYPD hat and folded American flags. "I’ve made my stance clear on our Second Amendment rights. And unlike the president, I believe it’s absolute."

The sheriff rejected calls for gun law reform, saying a lack of mental health resources and the "moral decay of America" were to blame for increasing violent crime. He suggested that a return to "personal accountability" was in order.

He continued: "Anyone who’s against this, feel free to move to Portland or Seattle. We don’t want you here."

"This is a joke, right?"

Hurricane Ian made landfall in Lee County on September 28, bringing 150 mph winds and inundating coastal communities with a massive storm surge that destroyed whole city blocks. Among Florida counties, Lee had the highest share of fatalities linked to the storm, with the local death toll exceeding 50 people as of October 16.

In front of wrecked buildings and torn up boats, Marceno provided daily updates to residents, delivering news about storm-related casualties and detailing his department's search and rescue efforts. As the days wore on, he detailed how his department had undertaken to search submerged vehicles for the remains of storm victims.

The sheriff's zero-tolerance approach, as well as his penchant for theatrics, played a major role in his leadership in the hurricane recovery. Two weeks after the storm struck, he was still warning looters of imminent retribution: "If you're lucky, you'll go to jail," he said on October 11.

The Lee County Sheriff's Office, meanwhile, has been documenting progress in delivering supplies and rebuilding bridges to the county's barrier islands, which were cut off by Ian. Some of the footage released by the department has cinematic music sweeping over scenes of Marceno embracing residents. One story details how rations were rapidly delivered to Pine Island residents after they chatted with the sheriff about their lack of supplies.
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Carmine Marceno has branded himself as a "Florida's Law and Order Sheriff."
Screenshot via Facebook
October 11 marked a milestone in the recovery effort as bridge access to the decimated community of Sanibel Island was restored. Marceno stood alongside Gov. Ron DeSantis to announce the reopening, with a convoy of trucks traversing the bridge in the background. 

All the while, Marceno has received praise from locals for going out, day-to-day, into ravaged communities. "The man takes care of business. He will lead Lee County through this devastation. It's all about community," one commenter on Facebook wrote.

Others have bitten back, saying Marceno has been carrying on the same kind of self-promotion and backpatting that made his pre-hurricane antics hard to swallow. When he released an image of himself posing for a photo op in front of a scene of mass destruction on Fort Myers Beach, one Twitter user responded, "This is a joke, right?"

"This can’t be real. Tone deaf as fuck," another commenter wrote.

Families of inmates at county jails have decried the sheriff's office's handling of the disaster.

One Lee County woman told New Times that her mother, who was awaiting a bail hearing, was forced to ride out the storm in the downtown Fort Myers jail after the sheriff's office declined to evacuate the facility, despite the fact that it is in an evacuation zone prone to dangerous storm surge. The jail had toilets overflowing with human sewage, and the staff were giving inmates cloudy, brown water to drink, the mother reported.

Detainees were transferred to the main jail, where New Times received multiple reports from prisoners and their family members, saying inmates were being denied clean water for as long as 20 hours at a time in the aftermath of the storm. Some resorted to drinking contaminated water from the tap, one inmate's family member said. Another inmate's wife told New Times that prisoners were not receiving their medication.

The sheriff's office confirmed to New Times that it transferred prisoners from downtown Fort Myers to the county's main jail after the storm damaged the city's utilities. The sheriff's office said that the downtown jail did not sustain significant flood damage; a spokesperson maintained that inmates were receiving food, water, and medication in accordance with the applicable regulations.
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Sheriff Carmine Marceno commissioned a custom paddywagon to haul arrestees around.
Photo by the Lee County Sheriff's Office
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Alex DeLuca is a staff writer at Miami New Times.
Contact: Alex DeLuca

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