A day in the life: Taylor County Sheriff’s deputy

Editor’s note: This is the the first report in a new series titled “A Day in the Life” by the Abilene Reporter News where we will shadow individuals involved in local law enforcement, criminal justice and other city and county positions.

It was pitch black outside as Deputy Ryan Culpepper shut off his headlights to remain unseen in the darkness. His eyes constantly scanned the night to look for anything out of place- a vehicle with a broken headlight, something suspicious or someone speeding over the limit. It was already past 10 p.m. and Culpepper had been on shift since 3 p.m. but no signs of tiredness crossed his face.

At the crest of a hill just outside Abilene Christian University, a work truck hit the gas and began to rapidly accelerate. Culpepper watched as the speed on his radar climbed past the limit of 55 mph. As soon as he saw the number reach 72, Culpepper threw the car into gear and hit the accelerator to the floor. The deputy’s Tahoe made a quick U-turn as he followed in the direction of the speeder.

As Culpepper accelerated past 90, his right hand rested on the police light button. About a minute later when he caught up with the driver, Culpepper quickly flipped the lights and swapped to operate the radio. He pulled onto the shoulder and began calling out the license plate numbers twice to police dispatch.

The second the Tahoe was put into park, Culpepper took off for the speeder’s parked vehicle. As he quickly headed for the vehicle, he scanned the highway for other moving cars and kept half an eye on the vehicle ahead to ensure the perpetrator didn’t make any sudden moves. Culpepper adjusted his shoulder flashlight and pointed it into the driver’s side window. He had caught the unremorseful speeder and ensured there would be one less accident that night in Taylor County.

Just an average night in Taylor County

Taylor County Sheriff’s deputies Ryan Culpepper and Sarah Steele allowed Reporter-News to shadow their evening shift which runs from 3 p.m.- 1 a.m. Deputies on patrol work long hours and usually patrol by themselves in their county vehicle. On average, six deputies and sergeants will patrol Taylor County at any given time, in an area that spans over 900 square miles.

A typical night for a deputy can include a wide variety of calls, including loose livestock on county roads, traffic violations, domestic violence or disturbances, suicide calls, elderly welfare checks, and/or drug busts. For these deputies, though, it isn’t about the time or money, it is about the citizens of Taylor County that they have sworn to serve and protect. It was easy to see the deputies’ passion and their dedication to service in just one evening shift.

Deputy Sarah Steele consults with another officer at a traffic stop on a small county road.

Deputy Sarah Steele consults with another officer at a traffic stop on a small county road.

The deputy with a smile for everyone

Deputy Sarah Steele knew from high school that law enforcement would become her future career. She got her start in emergency medicine, where she worked for nearly seven years before making her shift to become a peace officer.

Steele started out with the Merkel Police Department who sponsored her appointment to the West Central Texas Council of Governments. There, she trained for eight months on nights and weekends in order to become a certified peace officer.

Deputy Sarah Steele stands by her county vehicle after a stop made in relation to a control burn at the edge of Taylor County.

Deputy Sarah Steele stands by her county vehicle after a stop made in relation to a control burn at the edge of Taylor County.

She graduated in 2022 before coming to the Taylor County Sheriff’s Office in May 2023. While she is relatively new to the sheriff’s office, Steele is passionate about her career and loves the night shift as it “tends to get more stops that any other shift.”

In each of the traffic stops that Reporter-News witnessed with Deputy Steele, she was constantly smiling in all of her interactions with the citizens of Taylor County. She made them feel at ease with her genuine kindness as she explained why they were being stopped.

Steele made it a point to explain that she is conscience of making her stops as positive as possible. She noted the negative stigma that surrounds most law enforcement today, so instead she makes an effort to be the opposite and show her compassion for others.

The Sheriff's patrol vehicle monitors a less-frequented county road close to the windmill farm.

The Sheriff’s patrol vehicle monitors a less-frequented county road close to the windmill farm.

‘I knew you were going to save me’

When asked what the most important part of her career thus far was, Deputy Sarah Steele replied with a slight hesitation. She recounted a recent traffic stop she made, in which she realized it was much more than a simple stop.

Steele had pulled over a couple with a moving violation. When she spoke to the male occupant, she knew there was more to this story. The female occupant later told Steele, “I could see in your eyes you knew he was lying. I knew in that moment that you were going to save me.”

Without giving specific details, Steele noted that after that traffic stop, she helped that woman out of a tough situation. It was easy to see her genuine care for others. Steele said that little moments like those stay with her and remind her why she does what she does.

Steele also noted that while being in law enforcement, “you can see so much bad, but at the same time you can also see the good that comes out of it.” She said that that is why she got into law enforcement, “to make my county better for my kids and for everyone else’s kids.”

The expedient and efficient deputy

One could tell from the moment laying eyes on Deputy Ryan Culpepper that he is not someone to sit still. There was only one period of about 20 minutes that Reporter-News sat still in the car with Deputy Culpepper, other than that he was moving quickly about the county, ensuring its citizens were safe — and also not breaking the law.

At the many traffic stops that Reporter-News witnessed, Culpepper was a master of multi-tasking: watching the highway for cars passing close to him, watching the perpetrator, monitoring the radio to ensure there weren’t warrants out for the perpetrator, and also monitoring that Reporter-News was safe the entire time.

To say that Culpepper gets a thrill from protecting and serving Taylor County is simply an understatement. He left a high-paying sales job for the sheriff’s department. He is fiercely loyal to the sheriff and to his fellow officers and goes above and beyond the call of duty. He noted that this “definitely isn’t the job for everyone,” but that he loves it and wouldn’t trade it for any amount of money or success.

The sun sets on the outskirts of Taylor County, as the evening shift goes into full swing.

The sun sets on the outskirts of Taylor County, as the evening shift goes into full swing.

Comradery between the forces

What stood out the most during that evening shift was the sense of comradery at each traffic stop. On a stop in Merkel with Deputy Steele, the Merkel Police drove by to ensure that she didn’t need any back up. While riding with Deputy Culpepper, he swung by a K-9 unit’s stop to consult with the deputy on his stop.

Even the dispatcher on the radio checked in frequently with the deputies during traffic stops to ensure that nothing had gone awry. Every law enforcement entity within Taylor County was on the same team and made sure that every peace officer made it home safely.

By the end of the shift, multiple stops had been made but only resulted in two actual tickets. It wasn’t the deputies’ focus to simply ticket and move on, it was their hope to keep Taylor County safe and to simply be present. The deputies were showing the citizens of Taylor County that they are seen and they are safe.

This article originally appeared on Abilene Reporter-News: A day in the life: Taylor County Sheriff’s deputy

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