commentary (2007-06)

Everybody's talkin' 'bout the... Jones boy


by Barry Henderson

New Sheriff Jimmy "J.J." Jones is learning the hard way how Gerald Ford felt after pardoning former President Richard Nixon. His immediate retention of former Sheriff Tim Hutchison as an "assistant chief deputy" at a $99,000 annual salary after the County Commission appointed him sheriff, has chafed a lot of people. And they're letting Jones know about it.

Hutchison, who says he'll stay in the sheriff's office only until his pension is maximized on July 1, has said he'll help the new sheriff with the budget and other details in the meantime.

Well, to his critics, among whom I ordinarily count myself, I say Hutchison has earned his pension, even though it built up during the years since 1998, when he should have been subjected to a two-term limit. He earned it through his 33 years with the department, his effective direction--for the most part--of the sheriff's office and through political manipulation, which allowed the departmental pension to be brought up to parity with the Knoxville Police Department's through a countywide voter referendum last fall. It is the voters' fault that it passed, but Hutchison did his best to influence that vote through his well-developed political machine.

Look at it this way. Considering Hutchison's relationships with the press and with other law enforcement agencies over the years, it will be worth the $42,000 the county will have to pay him through the end of June to be shed of him. It must gall him to think that his $81,000 pension will be thousands less than that the city bestowed on former Police Chief Phil Keith, his nemesis in local law enforcement, but so be it.

Sheriff Jones will weather this tempest, I predict, and earn his election to the office. There was concern in some quarters that Jones might hold it for one term and step aside in favor of Hutchison, who could run again after four years. "No," says Jones, "I'm looking to stay. I like it. I know it's hectic, but I like it."

Of the legal challenges that could set aside his appointment until an election, special or otherwise, he says he's in the running either way. "That's why we have courts, to decide on the law. We're in law enforcement, and we'll abide by it."

As an astute political aside, Jones then says, "We're going to protect the community and make the neighborhoods safe, no matter what the courts say."

It was his political acumen, his contacts in the political arena across party lines, and his proven ability to raise campaign money that got Jones the recommendation from within the department that led to his appointment. Hutchison acquiesced to that recommendation, although Jones had once been his fiercest vocal critic when he quit the department as chief of detectives and ran against Hutchison in 2000.

Before Hutchison forgave him and took him back in as chief administrative deputy, Jones worked for the city police as a cold case investigator, a job he says led him and the team of city detectives to the clearing of several old crimes, including at least three capital murders.

A former member of the Metro Narcotics Squad and a long-time detective, Jones has the background to do the job well and the personality to keep it if, he says, he's given the chance to be judged on how he handles it.

Unlike Hutchison, Jones says he feels as if he has a "great relationship" with county Mayor Mike Ragsdale. "I told him I'd help him any way I can," Jones says.

As to the flap raised over the number of county officials' family members working in the sheriff's office, Jones concedes that "that's how it's been done. It was going on long before this situation and my appointment. But the fuss is being raised now. If it's going to be changed, change it, and I'll abide by that," he says, indicating he's not going to fire anyone for their family connections. He says he's already had piles of applications for work in the department since his appointment, but says that "none, so far as I know, are related to commissioners."

"We have 1,000 people working here [including deputies and the civilian employees of the sheriff's department]," Jones says, "and we're going to make mistakes, but given the opportunity, we'll correct them."

One cold case that sticks in Jones' craw is the stabbing death of Johnia Berry in her West Knoxville apartment in 2004.

"It's as hard a case as I've seen in 28 years in law enforcement," he says, and it's technically not a cold case. "We have a detective assigned to work that case every day, running down leads. That's all he does.

"I feel for the [Berry] family, and I understand their frustration, but it's discouraging to me that they say we're not working on it," says Jones "There's been more lab work done than on it than any case I've ever seen, and we've had suspects, but the DNA didn't match. We've got the DNA [of the killer], and ultimately we'll find the right person. It's frustrating to us, too."

It's that sort of stick-to-it-iveness that got Jones promoted and assigned to investigative work in the first place, and I'm betting he does what it takes to prove himself a good sheriff and win the office outright. I hope I'm right.