Former Boone County Sheriff Mike Nielsen: Thank You For Your Service!
Zionsville Monthly is honored to feature on our cover this month the former Boone County Sheriff, Michael “Mike” Nielsen, who completed his second term as sheriff on Dec. 31, 2022. Nielsen was term-limited by the state’s constitution to serve two consecutive 4-year terms. Reflecting on his accomplishments and challenges throughout the last 8 years, Nielsen shared his personal thoughts and recollections as well as his optimism for what comes next for the Boone County Sheriff’s Office.
Additionally, Nielsen spoke about the goals that he and the Boone County Commissioners have set for his new role as the executive project manager [reporting directly to the commissioners] that will oversee the county’s Justice Center expansion project, which officially broke ground this past December. Nielsen was instrumental in getting the Justice Center expansion project moving forward and remains a staunch advocate of its purpose.
Working Up the Law Enforcement Ladder
It’s likely that a majority of the public doesn’t know that Nielsen’s career path first began as an engineer who was contracted by Eli Lilly. A transplant from Iowa, Nielsen moved to Zionsville, Indiana, in 1983.
“I’m an engineer by trade and by education,” Nielsen said. “I got into law enforcement by way of Bob [Robert] Musgrave, who is still with the Zionsville Police Department. Long story made short, when I got recruited [to ZPD], I fell in love with the job. It was about serving others and being a servant leader.”
Nielsen was with ZPD from 1983 until 1989 and had worked his way up the ranks.
“I came up to the Boone County Sheriff’s Office in 1989,” Nielsen shared. “I started out as a deputy, and then I was honored to be promoted to lieutenant in our enforcement division, and I knew as soon as I put those lieutenant bars on, I wanted to be in [law enforcement] management, and eventually I wanted to be sheriff of this county.”
Amid controversy within the BCSO leadership and a federal investigation involving the former sheriff, Ken Campbell, Nielsen — who was the chief deputy at that time — took over as acting sheriff in June of 2014.
“I wanted to eventually work my way up the ladder, and I’d been successful in moving into every rank in that sheriff’s office,” Nielsen said. “So, I was excited about the opportunity to run [for sheriff] in 2014. The time as ‘acting’ sheriff was a test for me that was only 6 months before the general election, and I had competition right after the news broke out about the FBI investigation. But I never looked back, and we hit this head on. I said, ‘We’re going to move on,’ and we were able to take that turmoil and turn [it] into something positive.”
Nielsen shared that he and his team increased the morale of the BSCO and fixed the issues that needed to be addressed.
“I was elected to sheriff in November of 2014 with 84 percent of the vote, I believe, and it instilled the confidence in me that not only was the sheriff’s office behind me, but the people in this county were behind me. I’ve always said that I’ve lived in a political office [as sheriff], but I am not politician. I think that’s why when I stand up for what I believe in and don’t do things because they’re politically motivated, some folks sometimes may not agree and are critics of mine. I’ve always done what is right for the community and always said to my staff, ‘Always do the right thing, for the right reason, at the right time.’”
Charting the Course
As Nielsen and his team navigated the first 4 of his 8 years at the helm, he said he set the goals high.
“When I took over as the official sheriff and not just acting sheriff in January of 2015, it was a very proud moment for me,” Nielsen expressed. “I had finally achieved my goal of where I wanted to be, and now the challenges lay ahead. There was so much that I needed to accomplish within those first years. We finally got the sheriff’s office morale back, and the issues with the previous administration were behind us and the investigation was closed. We started anew and made our office what we wanted.”
During this time, the county was poised to see substantial growth in the immediate future, and Nielsen was one of county’s leaders who managed to stay ahead of the curve when it came to public safety and quality of services amid changing economic, political and social landscapes.
“As part of my personal goals that I set, I went back and finished up a second degree,” Nielsen shared. “I got my second bachelor’s [degree] in Business Administration and then I finished up my master’s [degree] in Business Management. I did that because if you look at the way the sheriff’s office is ran, it is a multi-million-dollar business — the difference being that the money is taxpayer money, so we have to not only do the right things to keep people safe, but we have to be fiscally responsible as well.”
Nielsen stressed the importance of surrounding himself with good people during his tenure as sheriff.
“We can sit here and talk about me, but it’s the good people that I put in place to surround me that were able to do that work, and all of us together is how we accomplished those goals,” Nielsen stated. “I was steering the ship, but I had a core group of navigators, and we were able to navigate the ship along the way. We’d get off course once in a while, but we’d always get back on course.”
Without Rain, There Is No Growth
Over his two terms, Nielsen implemented many initiatives within the BSCO operation as well as some that impacted the county as a whole. Not all were immensely popular, and some faced opposition, which Nielsen met head on with facts, statistics and real-life testimonials.
“Some people did not and still may not agree with the public safety LIT [Local Income Tax],” Nielsen said. “But the majority of people supported me, [and] the list of what we’ve achieved is long. If we didn’t have that [public safety] LIT today, the city/towns of Zionsville, Whitestown and Lebanon wouldn’t have the police officers that they have, and the fire departments wouldn’t have the personnel and equipment that they have today. That tax generates about $16.5 million dollars, and over the course of this year, it will be close to $18 million.”
Additionally, that public safety LIT supports the school resource officer program. Currently, there is a school resource officer assigned to every public school within the county. And according to Nielsen, the public safety LIT made it possible for the installation and operation of Flock cameras throughout the county, making it possible to capture the license plates of stolen vehicles and persons with outstanding warrants. Nielsen has also been instrumental in strengthening the communications and technology used in BSCO, in part because of his engineering background as well as getting the public safety LIT passed.
Another major benchmark for Nielsen began when he was rewriting policies and procedures for BCSO as chief deputy prior to 2007 that were antiquated and hadn’t been updated since 1979. And he updated and implemented those policies and procedures during his first term as sheriff, ensuring that BSCO was practicing the best standards of its industry. Additionally, at the close of 2022, BSCO has certified policies and procedures by way of Lexipol — a risk management solution for law enforcement and government — for the jail and has contracted with the same contractor to created certified policies and procedures for its communications office, making BCSO the only client of Lexipol’s to have certified policies and procedures for its communications protocols.
Nielsen spoke about some of the exciting highs and some of the devastating lows that he endured, along with the men and women at BSCO and the residents of Boone County. Nielsen named two events that he wished he hadn’t witnessed and survived during his time as sheriff. One was the unfathomable loss of Deputy Jacob Pickett in 2018. The other was the unforeseeable global pandemic and the veritable chaos that ensued in its wake in 2020 into 2021.
“When you lose somebody under your watch … I still can’t sleep well at night because of it,” Nielsen contemplated. “It brought a lot of things to focus within our office. We’re not guaranteed tomorrow, and things can happen in a split second that not only change the lives of family and friends but also the lives of our entire family in Brown. I have to live with [losing Jake] for the rest of my life, and while I kept saying that we would find our new normal, I’m not sure that we have found one since we lost Jake.”
If a silver lining could come from that tragedy, Nielsen shared that it was the counseling that had been receiving prior to Deputy Pickett’s death that had given him guidance and comfort during the most challenging days as the county’s sheriff. Along with his daughter, Taylor, who was also in law enforcement, Nielsen had seen the importance of mental health therapy, and he shared the importance of providing that service to everyone employed and connected with BSCO.
“I was in counseling before Jake passed, and it had done something good for me then,” Nielsen shared. “[Counseling] saved my daughter’s life, and frankly, it saved mine. BCSO has a contracted therapist, and I think we’re saving lives every single day by having these officer wellness initiatives.”
Nielsen added, “The other [event] that I wish I would’ve never had to go through was the pandemic. I wish that I had never gone through either one of these events. In 2020, I had 250 inmates and staff I had to worry about. We put all of the measures into place to make sure we took care of our own people, those who were in our care and the people of the county by helping to prevent the spread of COVID. I honestly think God led me down this path, and through the tragedy and my daughter’s and my own personal journeys, it has made me a much stronger man, a much better husband and father than I was in my first term. My faith runs deep, and my family is in every decision that I make.”
Nielsen spoke about working with current BCSO Sheriff Tony Harris over the period of many years and how he had helped prepare Harris and the command staff for their new roles.
“I started working with Tony and the command staff as soon as I became sheriff to teach them how to do my job,” Nielsen said. “I wanted somebody to come into this position really understanding what they’re doing. I can sleep at night knowing that I’ve done my job and that Tony and his team have the experience and knowledge to carry on. I’ve been steering that ship for the last 8 years, and while I can tell you it wasn’t an easy journey — it’s been hard at times — it has been some of the most rewarding years in my entire life.”