Floyd Tidwell, former San Bernardino County sheriff who modernized agency, dies at 90

Former San Bernardino County Sheriff Floyd Tidwell holds up confiscated bottles of perfume during a 1988 news conference.
Former San Bernardino County Sheriff Floyd Tidwell holds up confiscated bottles of perfume during a 1988 news conference.
(file photo/Los Angeles Times)

Floyd Tidwell, the colorful San Bernardino County sheriff who shepherded the department from a small force of deputies who roamed Southern California’s outback to a modern law enforcement agency, has died at a medical center in the high desert.

Tidwell died Tuesday, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department announced on its Faceboook page. He was 90. No cause of death was specified.

Hard to miss with his turquoise jewelry, cowboy boots and a cheek full of chewing tobacco, Tidwell led the department for nearly a decade, overseeing the creation of an aviation division, a gang task force and sophisticated communications systems. He retired in 1991, saying he wished to spend more time with his grandchildren and on the rodeo circuit.


But his career was flecked with controversy and in 2004 -- long retired -- he pleaded guilty to four felony counts of concealing stolen property after investigators said he took more than 500 guns from department evidence rooms. At sentencing, the charges were reduced to misdemeanors and he was fined $10,000. He never spent a day in jail.

“Incarceration was never an option,” the district attorney said at the time. “He’s 74. He did serve the people well in many respects for many years.”

Witnesses said that Tidwell was an avid gun collector and gave many of the weapons to family members or displayed them in his home in Phelan in the Mojave Desert.

One sergeant said the sheriff was fond of Old West-style weapons and would prowl evidence rooms “as if shopping.”

Tidwell said he ultimately took a plea deal to spare his ailing wife the stress of a trial.

“Forty years of service for this,” he muttered before entering his plea.

San Bernardino County Sheriff Floyd Tidwell examines bloodstains found in a murder investigation in 1983.
(Reed Saxon/AP)

The son of a cattle rancher, Tidwell began his life in uniform as a deputy assigned to the department’s Big Bear Lake substation and quickly moved up the ranks, He was elected sheriff in 1982 and then reelected four years later in a landslide, earning nearly 80% of the vote. During his tenure he oversaw the design and construction of a new department headquarters and construction of a detention center.

A fan of blue -- the only color ink he would use when writing reports, Tidwell dressed up the agency’s fleet of squad cars with blue stripes.

Popular in the community and among the rank-and-file, Tidwell was dubbed “the cowboy sheriff” for his attire and folksy approach to police work.


His reputation took a hit, however, when five Latino men won $745,000 in federal court after claiming they’d been beaten by deputies.

Though video evidence introduced in court appeared to show deputies using batons and their fists on men who offered little if any resistance, Tidwell stood by his officers and insisted they had used a “proper” level of force. Tidwell was accused of condoning brutality.

As the years passed, though, activists said Tidwell appeared to have reflected on the lessons of the so-called Victorville Five episode and drew praise for taking steps to improve relations between the department and minority communities.

“I believe his consciousness was raised,” longtime activist and author Armando Navarro said at the time.