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General News

Public Service Genes: Chief Deputy Sheriff George Steffen

George S. Steffen’s childhood home was across the street from the police station. He loved to watch the police officers every day passing by in their fancy uniforms. That was when the idea of becoming a policeman first crossed his mind. Growing up, he was told by his father that his grandfather was one of the guards of the great Greek national leader and Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos. Perhaps he too could become a great policeman.

That is exactly what he did. In 2015 he became Chief Deputy Sheriff of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, second in command, after the Sheriff, in an area were thousands of Greek-Americans live. This county is also home to the world-famous ‘Greek Village’, Tarpon Springs.

He witnessed a lot and dealt with demanding and even dangerous cases. He gained vast experience and became even better at his job. However, he himself never viewed it as a simple job, but more as a great passion that gives him life.

His passion and valuable experience were appreciated so much by his department, that a year after he retired, he was asked to come back. His knowledge, his advice, his guidance, and his integrity in the line of duty were essential for the department.

“A year after I retired, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri called me and said that he needed my help, because I have the experience and many years of valuable service,” Steffen told The National Herald. “I didn’t refuse, but I told him I didn’t know how much longer I would be in the service. Indeed, I came back and I’m still here.”

In the middle, George Stephen (second from the left) with his former colleague and friend, now Sheriff, Bob Gualtieri. Left, Paul Halle (Asst. Chief Deputy) and right, David Danzig (Asst. Chief Deputy). (Photo by G. Stephen)

He and Gualtieri have known each other since their early years in the police force and have worked together on various cases. The current sheriff has always known of the abilities of his Greek-American colleague. Therefore, he had to bring him back to the department, to continue as chief deputy. The police department is always dealing with big and difficult cases, especially involving drugs. Steffen is highly valuable due to his knowledge and experience, but he is also well loved, not only by his colleagues, but also by the community.

Rhode Island State Senator Lou Raptakis has known the Greek-American police officer for years and has appreciated his character and work. “George Steffen has dedicated many years of his life to his service and he has succeeded,” he said. “He committed his life’s great purpose to serve the police and protect his fellow man. He is a very strong individual and his family is really proud of him. Every day he faces many dangers due to the nature of his work. George goes above and beyond and stays true to his duty.”

Senator Raptakis also went on to say that several programs that were successfully implemented in Pinellas County, were brought to Rhode Island by Steffen in order to be implemented there as well.

Steffen was born in 1958 in Davenport, IA and had roots in Heraklion, Crete.

Historical photograph. George Stephen’s grandfather, Konstantinos Thomadakis, who had served as a guard for the national leader Eleftherios Venizelos. (Photo by G. Stephen)

He spent a year living in Crete as a child, where he learned to write and read Greek. His younger sister, Maria, who was also born in the United States, is a teacher and also lives in Florida.

His father was adopted by his uncle, whose surname was Stefanakis and who had come to America in 1912.

In April 1972, Steffen’s parents came to Tarpon Spring and he has been living in Florida ever since.

His father, Stelios, had a restaurant in Clearwater Beach, FL, where little George worked at as a child. His mother was a seamstress and owned a shop in Tarpon Springs for about 40 years.

Steffen’s family has a long tradition with the police, as his grandfather, on his father’s side, Konstantinos Thomadakis, had served as a guard for Eleftherios Venizelos for about eight years.

“My grandfather was with him twice when there had been assassination attacks against the national leader, as my father had told me,” he said. “My father also wanted to go into the police, but, eventually, he came to America.”

He knows nothing else about his grandfather’s story, who stood by the side of the national leader Eleftherios Venizelos, but his photos are like a sacred treasure for Steffen. They are part of his family’s history and part of the history of Greece.

George Stephen’s family. He himself, standing with his wife, Katerina. Seated, his sons, Nikolaos (left) and Michael with his wife, Michalitsa. (Photo by G. Stephen)

His desire to become a policeman was revealed from a young age. “In Iowa, I saw policemen every day, since across the street from our house was the police department. I use to watch them and I loved their uniforms too. And I figured from a young age that I wanted to follow that profession. Something drew me to it. That’s why I went to university later on. And because I grew up living in Tarpon Springs, I thought I’d start in the police force from there. There was also the family legacy aspect, since I knew my grandfather had served as a guard for Eleftherios Venizelos.”

At the age of 21, he joined the police force, where he has served for a total of 42 years, of which 12 to 13 of them were in the drug department. He recalls that back in the day a kilo of cocaine sold for about $33,000.

Steffen studied Criminal Justice at the University of Virginia, Public Administration at Troy University in Alabama, and Criminology at St. Leo University in Florida. He is also graduated 223rd at the FBI National Academy.

After his first time on the Tarpon Springs Police Department, he was in the service of the Sheriff’s Office for 40 years, which is the highest police authority in the county. With around 3,000 members, it is the 15th largest Sheriff’s Office in the United States and is in charge of its 27th largest county jail system. Among other things, he served in an administrative position in the Department of Narcotics, Child Protective Services, and Criminal Investigations. He also taught at St. Petersburg College in Florida (Southeastern Public Safety Institute) in the field of Criminal and Drug Investigations.

With the Prime Minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, when he visited Tarpon Springs for the celebration of the Epiphany. (Photo by G. Stephen)

“The years have gone by too fast,” Steffen said. “It’s like a dream. But that’ s how life is. But, I never saw my service as a job, where I would say I have to get up and go to work. It’s always been a great passion of mine, not a job. I never saw it as a job. That’s why I served for so many years and that’s also why I went back.”

Especially in recent years, there have been large waves of migration from the northern states to Florida. One would expect, perhaps, that crime has increased significantly as well.

“Not much,” replied Steffen. “In our county, Pinellas, no. In fact, crime has gone down 22% in the last three or four years.

Throughout his years in law enforcement, Steffen has offered his services and expertise to four sheriffs. But why didn’t he act to become sheriff himself?

“Our job is not easy or ordinary,” he replied. “You’re not really with your family. You’re always out. Personally, I wasn’t particularly interested in becoming a sheriff. I liked working, like I do now.”

This year, Steffen will decide whether he will continue or retire from service. “I’ve thought about it a lot,” he said.

Packages of cocaine, which they found and disabled the cocaine trafficking ring. In the middle, George Stephen and left, his old colleague and friend, Bob Gualtieri, now the sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida. (Photo by G. Stephen)

During his many years of service in Florida, one of the cases that stands out the most, “had to do with drugs, which I’ve written books about,” he recalled. “There was a Greek-American from Tarpon Springs involved in that case. They had brought a large quantity of cocaine from Colombia to St. Petersburg on two ships, hidden in hollow wood. From there they transported it by truck to Tarpon Springs. There was a big police operation, we found the drugs under the planks and caught them.” Steffen had been working on the case at the time, along with men from other agencies, including the FBI and DEA.

To this day, the story of the drugs hidden in the hollow wooden boards is still talked about in Tarpon Springs.

In his career, Steffen has been in danger many times. “Mostly in drug cases,” he explained. “One time I pretended to go to buy drugs with a colleague in a bar full of people. We found someone who was willing to sell to us and invited us up to a room above the bar. We followed him. My colleague sat down facing us and that person showed us the substance, of relatively little value, but suddenly, as he was standing next to me, he pulled out a gun and pointed it to my head. ‘Are you a police detective? I’ve seen you somewhere,’ he said. I denied it. I stood up carefully and with a sudden movement I grabbed the gun from him. I had a gun on me too, but if I was going to pull it out, he would have been ahead of me. Then he started making up excuses, that he did it on purpose to see what I would say. Of course, we arrested him.”

Steffen, due to his high position, is very busy and has a lot of responsibilities, but he manages to find time for things he loves.

“I like to write and read,” he said. Specifically, he has been involved in writing, as co-author of two editions (2003 and 2010) of the book Drug Interdiction: Partnerships, Legal Principles and Investigative Technologies for Law Enforcement.

He has also written police-related articles for Police and Security News and Law and Order Magazine.

“I also really enjoy listening to Greek folk and a lot of Cretan music,” he said. “I also jog, exercise, and play basketball. Until a few years ago, I also played basketball with a police team.”

However, Steffen’s biggest priority is his family. “We have a very strong bond as a family,” he emphasized. He and his beloved wife, Katerina, who is the support system of the family, have two sons. His eldest son, Michael, who is married to Michalitsa, has given him a one-year-old grandson, Jordan, that he is crazy about. “I love playing with him all the time,” he said. Their home is three minutes away and he regularly finds the opportunity to spend time with him.

His youngest son, Nikolaos, attends the University of Florida.

When asked where he learned Greek so well, he replied with a smile: “Mainly at home. I also went to the Greek school in Iowa. There, the priests gave us lessons.” But he also learned a lot from his grandparents when he was a little boy in Crete.

George Stephen’s family. He himself, standing with his wife, Katerina. Seated, his sons, Nikolaos (left) and Michael with his wife, Michalitsa. (Photo by G. Stephen)

In his youth in Tarpon Springs, young George had swum one year with other peers to catch the Holy Cross during the famous Epiphany ceremony. The tossing of the Holy Cross was then performed by the late Archbishop of North and South America, Iakovos. Many years later, his eldest son also participated twice in the Epiphany ceremony and tried to retrieve the Cross.

He is proud of his ancestry and its values that shaped his life and career.

“My Greek roots were always a huge blessing,” he stated admiringly. “Our religion was also helpful to me. Even today, every morning when I leave the house, I cross myself, because I don’t know what I will encounter during my service. I am a man of God, just like my parents. We grew up close to the Church. It is a great thing. Also, decency is a strong value of our ancestry. We must keep our traditions. This is what I taught my children. I want to keep it Greek, and when I can, I also go to Greek events.”

The former president of the Pancretan Association of America, Manolis Velivasakis, also speaks with praise for Steffen. “George is a great Greek and a great man,” he said. “He represents the Greek community properly and beautifully.”

Steffen likes Greek traditional dances and, especially the Cretan ones. “I still have pictures of when I was a kid dancing Cretan dances, Maleviziotis and anything else you want,” he said with a smile.

Steffen is also familiar with New York City and Astoria’s Hellenism. He has even participated a few times with the St. Paul’s Society – and association of Orthodox Christians in law enforcement – at the Greek Parade on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

He regularly goes out to dinner at the waterfront restaurants in Tarpon Springs. “Always, when we have friends and visitors, we take them there,” he said.

Finally, asked what advice he would give to younger police officers, he said, “a lot has changed over the years,” he answered. “I would tell them to be true to their duty, to take care of themselves and others, because there are people out there who don’t have their best interests,” at heart.

As for Greek-American youth, he advises them, to be a good Greek… Be honest and hardworking. And to know that family is a very big thing. That’s what I tell my own children and others. To be close to their family and have their support. Personally, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of my wife and my whole family. They also need to have faith in God.”


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