Meet Carmel Police Department’s new leader: Chief Drake Sterling plans to lead with energy, transparency


On Leap Day, Drake Sterling became chief of the Carmel Police Department.

A native of La Porte, Sterling most recently a captain with the Zionsville Police Department and assistant SWAT commander for the Boone County Special Response Team. He is also a graduate of the FBI National Academy in Quantico and has a graduate certification in criminal justice from the University of Virginia.

Sterling, 36, replaces Jim Barlow, who is retiring for the second time in two years. His career spanned 40 years with CPD.

“It has been an honor to serve the community of Carmel. I look forward to my retirement, and I look forward to the great things Chief Sterling will do for the Carmel Police Department,” Barlow said. “His passion, energy and leadership will be wonderful for the men and women at CPD and for our amazing community.”

The City of Carmel will hold a public swearing-in ceremony for Sterling March 12.

Two days before becoming CPD chief, he discussed his background and the upcoming transition with Current.

CIC COM Chief Of Police 3
Carmel Police Department Chief Drake Sterling in downtown Carmel. (Photo by Adam Seif)

Why did you want to become a police officer?

When I was 16 or 17 years old, I had never really thought about law enforcement or what I wanted to do with my life. It was the middle of winter, and I went around a curve and my car slid off the road, and I didn’t know what to do. Before I could even pick up the phone to call a tow or to call a friend one of the LaPorte County sheriff’s deputies pulled up. He could have just kept going on down the road. He could have called a tow and just left me there. But he actually hooked me up and pulled me out himself. It was a really good interaction. Fast forward, a year later, he became the SRO at our high school, and I developed a friendship with him at that point.

But it went back to that moment where I saw that a police officer could legitimately help people instead of just being a tough figure. So, that’s when I fell in love with it.

How would you describe your leadership style? Should officers expect to see big changes in how you lead the department? 

The main thing is that everything starts and ends with relationships. So, I really do hope to bring that mindset from my (previous) position where we have 46 officers in Zionsville, and I can know every single one of them and know their wives and kids and have at least a baseline friendship with each of them.

I hope that I can bring that here as well, because I think that being an empathetic leader and letting the guys and girls that are out there doing the hard work know that they have somebody who supports them and somebody who cares about them.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing CPD?

Not too long ago, (CPD) added a police district with the downtown district here in Midtown and the arts district because of the growth and obviously the growth up. With the parking garages, I know that there’s a concern for safety within those facilities. Adding that district and assigning dedicated manpower to this area is really important. I think doing so in nontraditional ways, whether it be foot patrols, bike patrols, being able to get out of your cars and not be just strictly stuck there will be a big thing.

Why were you interested in applying for the top role at CPD?

Living in Noblesville in the early 2000s and falling in love with the northside, I couldn’t see myself being anywhere else other than this area.

The entire state of Indiana, even the Midwest and nationally at some levels, has immense respect for the City of Carmel and the Carmel Police Department. So, I put (the CPD chief role) up there with the top three law enforcement positions in the state, with the Indianapolis police chief and the superintendent of the state police. I put Carmel right there with those two of who should be leading the charge and those who should be setting the example statewide. The opportunity to be involved in that in any capacity is something I can get behind. So, when this opened, it was a no brainer.

At 36 years old, you’re on the young end among those leading a police department. What would you say to those who question whether you have enough experience to lead CPD? 

I feel as though I have the law enforcement experience. I feel as though I have the life experience, but I do understand that that’s going to be something I’m going to be faced with.

(Mayor Sue Finkam) asked me the same thing. She said, “How do you think your age is going to hurt or help you?” Well, I’ve realized very quickly, she’s high energy. She is always working. I don’t know when she sleeps. I told her, “The thing I’m going to bring is I can at least provide (similar) energy with my age and excitement.”

Police departments across the U.S. have been facing staffing shortages, including in Carmel. How do you plan to address that?

We’ve been pretty lucky over in Zionsville that we’ve managed to maintain the same recruitment numbers. Now, we have had to work a lot harder per applicant to get them in the front door.

I think a way to solve that or work around that is to be open to new ways of recruiting, to be more active in social media and multimedia and just really trying to engage people and let them know what we do.

How do you plan to build bridges and working relationships with police departments in surrounding municipalities?

I’ve already met with a couple of the Hamilton County partners, and I plan to meet with the others. Immediately, I recognize how much collaboration there is within the county, and I think that’s amazing, because all of these communities are so similar. We’re all combating the same problems.

In Indianapolis, Chief (Christopher) Bailey, was one of the first calls that I got when I received the position. He’s going to be a great partner.

What do you want Carmel residents to know about you?

The police department is not separate from the community. It exists within the community, so we will be committed to being good partners to all our stakeholders. Everybody external has an equal voice and we’ll be listening to it.

I have some really exciting ideas I hope to roll out within the first 90 days to try to develop some transparency and open those communication lines and make sure those who maybe feel their voice hasn’t been heard will have that opportunity to do so.

Record Broken Slide
Drake Sterling, then a captain for the Zionsville Police Department, ran the fastest mile in FBI National Academy history in November 2023 with a time of 4:49:58. (Photo courtesy of the FBI)

Record-setting runner

As an administrator, Carmel Police Department Chief Drake Sterling isn’t likely to chasse down criminals on foot in the streets. That’s good news for the bad guys.

In November 2023, Sterling set the record for the fastest FBI National Academy mile run with a time of 4:49:58. He had run track in high school and college but hadn’t trained seriously for about 15 years. When he realized that the mile record at the academy was within his reach, he began to prepare.

“Drawing on my experience in running, I thought, ‘I can do this,’” he said. “That six-week timeframe from going from basically no running to trying to run really fast was tough. But I tried to stay confident and had a lot of support from everybody.”

After becoming a police officer, Sterling coached track for 13 years, most recently coaching the girls team at Zionsville Community High School. He stepped down from coaching in 2021 upon becoming a captain with the Zionsville Police Department to devote more time to his wife and children, who are now 8 and 6 years old, as they became more involved in sports and activities of their own.

“It was a wakeup call to set your priorities straight, focus on work and focus on home,” Sterling said. “My kids are my world, and my wife, as well. So, I’ve been trying to keep those two places happy the best I can, at work and at home.”

Sterling still runs occasionally, typically at a more casual pace.

“It’s a huge stress reliever,” he said, “an opportunity to flush the system and let your mind wander a little bit.”

A thorough process

Hiring a chief to replace the retiring leader of the Carmel Police Department was a top priority for Carmel Mayor Sue Finkam, who launched the search before taking office Jan. 1.

She formed a hiring committee in late 2023 to assist with the search by reviewing applications, scoring candidates and recommending finalists. In late January, the committee held in-person interviews with six finalists, a process that included the candidates responding in real time to three simulations, including a mock press conference in which Current in Carmel editor Ann Marie Shambaugh and POLITICO national reporter Adam Wren asked a series of scripted and unscripted questions.

Candidates also completed a questionnaire and written examination within 48 hours of receiving it. The process concluded with Finkam interviewing the final candidates before selecting the next chief.

“I firmly believe this is the most important hire I will make. It is very unique in that most cities do not have such a thorough process,” Finkam said. “We created a methodical, multi-faceted approach for the selection process, including valued partners at the table to ensure transparency and broad representation. The end result is that the process worked, and we were able to choose an excellent chief of police for our community.”