The political realm of sheriff
by Jim Ruth Bradley County Sheriff
Nov 03, 2013 | 971 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The daily planning and implementation of planning goes on every day at the Sheriff’s Office.

On patrol, the shift commander hands the torch to the oncoming shift commander or supervisor (sergeant). There is an exchange of information between the supervisors about the problems that confronted those on the previous shift.

This pertinent information helps the deputies keep the peace on their watch.

Zone deputies share information from one watch to another. There is a continuity of purpose from day to day, week to week and so on. The patrol supervisors have wide latitude within the guidelines of policy and procedure to keep the peace and keep our neighborhoods safe.

A deputy sheriff is the “sheriff” as he or she goes about the duties of the office. That deputy you encounter is the face of the BCSO. By the very unique state constitutional office of sheriff, that deputy represents me personally as well. This is true whether you have one or two deputies with a very small budget or if there are thousands of deputies, as is the case with Sheriff Lee Baca in Los Angeles who has a budget of more than $3 billion. Yes, I said billions.

When a deputy fails in his individual effort it is a reflection on me. This is true even if another administration hired him. When I was elected to this office I was determined to have a professional law-enforcement agency like has never been before in our history.

Over the years I have seen the storm clouds of criminal activity gathering. Most recently the Banner reported that criminal activity and lawlessness are rapidly trending upward all across the nation. The statistical gathering body also stated many crimes go unreported.

The office of sheriff in most states in the U.S. is very unique in the political realm and in the way it functions at serving legal papers, incarcerating criminals and having the overall responsibility of keeping a county safe.

A sheriff must give account every four years to his boss, the voters. While he must work with the county mayor and County Commission, the sheriff does not work for them, and especially does not work for the backroom political wannabe bosses. (In a future column I will give the reader insight on how that shadowy group works its will on the majority).

The sheriff must possess some political acumen or he or she would not be able to get elected to begin with. The same voters have high expectations that their sheriff be a competent, highly trained individual who is good at keeping the county safe. All other aspects of the office of sheriff must be handled in a competent and cost effective way.

The citizen taxpayer also wants a sheriff and deputies to reflect an image of competence and confidence in all they do. They will no longer tolerate a “Barney Fife” type who is just a caricature of the real thing.

I mention this because of a sheriff who was holding office in a small, rural Tennessee county as recently as the 1980s, who could not read or write. I am sure the criminal element had a heyday during his time in office. That sheriff was indicted for committing a crime and was removed from office. Some of our readers will recall that there were about 20 Tennessee sheriffs arrested and removed from office during those years.

The democratic system of electing the No. 1 law-enforcer in the county is the best way. The informed voter will see that the sheriff is accountable. That is why we now have a situation in which most elected sheriffs have earned a bachelor’s or master’s degree. These same agencies have men and women in management with the same level of education.

There are sheriff’s offices that have a career protection plan that covers and protects the professional, longtime employees. This plan means a new sheriff cannot fire an employee because of their politics. Some of these career plans also say that a ranking deputy can only be demoted, after an election, one rank or pay grade by the new administration. This, of course, does not mean a deputy cannot be further demoted or fired for cause, just not for politics.

In such a plan, the sheriff still will have the right to name his own chief deputy and personal secretary.

The appointment of a chief deputy has always been considered a political one anyway. It is much like when a new president appoints his cabinet to influence his policy and goals.

After much deliberation I chose my chief deputy based on his character, education, vast experience and successes as a lawman. I felt he was the best choice to help me implement positive changes in culture at the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office.

The downside of being a chief deputy is that you are like a top sergeant in the Army. You have to carry out the policies of discipline, demotion and termination. When you run a tight ship, some criticize you as being mean and hard. I know, I have had that job.

Some sheriffs become the political leader of their county. Statewide candidates often call on them for political endorsement. In some counties like one in Arizona, presidential candidates have sought the endorsement of the 85-year-old sheriff, who is often controversial but still gets elected.

Frankly, I am somewhat uncomfortable with most of the political aspects of being sheriff. I do not want to be a political mover and shaker. Neither do I want the movers and shakers dictating to me how to run the Sheriff’s Office. I am very satisfied with giving a direct account to my boss, the everyday Joe and Jane of Bradley County.

This is why I have tried to tell the inside story through this column each week. I have shown the warts and bumps of the everyday life at the Sheriff’s Office.

I believe this openness in the last three years or so is paying off. That is the sense I am getting as people talk to me and my deputies. There’s more to come.

Thanks for reading, and for your personal comments.