Good cop. Bad cop. Cool cop. That’s the best way to sum up Stuart Police Chief David Dyess’ earliest impressions of law enforcement.
Good cop: A Stuart native who grew up on Manor Drive, Dyess was in middle school when Hurricane David hit. He watched in awe as a hometown police officer helped the neighborhood survive the eye of the storm, announcing important updates via loudspeaker.
Bad cop: After a scuffle with some boys who lived a few streets over, Dyess and his buddies hatched a scheme to strike back. While crossing the woods to ambush their rivals, they stumbled into a surprise of their own.
“Next thing I know the Stuart Police surrounded us,” he says, remembering that a veteran officer came into the room carrying a noose, employing an old-school scare tactic. Immediately, the boys dropped their tough-guy personas. Then, the police officers brought in the parents to de-escalate the conflict, and ultimately resolve the tension between the two groups.
Despite that run-in with the police, Dyess says the situation made him and his friends understand the value of community policing. But Dyess remembers that time as a different era, adding that many of his friends from then became police officers.
“Now when we go to the parent, half the time the parent will turn on us and believe the kid,” Dyess says.
At 47, the husband and father of four—two girls and two boys—is a 26-year veteran of the Stuart Police force.
“The Palm Beach Post asked me how I could approve him (for the position) in just four hours,” says Paul Nicoletti, Stuart city manager. “I’d been watching him for four years. He’s bright, intuitive, well-organized, a really good leader—not just for the department but the entire community.”
Dyess’ relaxed demeanor and deep local roots equip him well for one of the most important components of the job—proactive community engagement. Outreach programs concentrate on East Stuart—an African-American community with a rich cultural history and great promise for revitalization. Unfortunately, a series of disputes among some young men that originated in rap battles have escalated—dramatically.
“That stuff used to start with fists; these groups go straight to guns,” Dyess says, citing 16 shootings in 2015. “What is very scary for me is while these shooters are very poor shots, those bullets have to land somewhere. I’m very worried about an innocent bystander or a child being hit by a stray bullet.”
Worse, witnesses hesitate to come forward. The threat of stray bullets, though dangerous, apparently pales compared to direct retaliation. Dyess remembers when the community switched from accommodating law enforcement to shying away or shunning them. In 2006, Dan “The Stucco Man” Melichar was stabbed multiple times. Afterward, gang members surveilled witnesses’ homes, Dyess says, making sure no one cooperated with law enforcement.
But there are department programs that aim to overcome such sobering challenges. Cooking with Cops classes at the Stuart 10th Street Center create fun memories with the police and children. Cops and Bobbers employs the police boat for fishing outings. The East Stuart Youth Initiative unites Stuart Police, Children’s Services Council of Martin County and Tykes & Teens in offering judo, arts and crafts, dance, yoga and more. The goal is to provide instruction that emphasizes character, positive behavior and academic excellence.
“We’re a part of the community,” Dyess says. “We just happen to have a job that gives us the most power out of any other branch of government in that we have the ability to take someone’s freedom away. And that’s a huge responsibility that shouldn’t be taken for granted by anyone.”