When Knox County voters go to the polls on May 2, they won't just be voting for the Republican candidate for sheriff. They'll be voting on who should be sheriff, period—there are no Democrat nominees this year.
Two new faces have thrown their hats in the ring against current sheriff Jimmy "J.J." Jones: Bobby Waggoner, a retired railroad officer and Knox County deputy, and Sam Hammett, an officer for the Knox County Sheriff's Office for nine years.
Jones was appointed as sheriff in 2007, as part of the infamous "Black Wednesday" political reshuffle; he was elected for the first time in 2010. Both Hammett and Waggoner see this as cause for concern and have vowed to be more transparent if elected. All three candidates, however, say safety of the community is their top priority.
Hammett worked as a traffic unit officer, an accident reconstruction team member, and a diving team member for KCSO until July 2012. After a traffic accident in his cruiser that year (which he admits was his fault), Hammett says his personal duffle bag was searched by officers, and they found a book he was carrying on how to run for sheriff. (He says he'd been praying about it for two years).
Hammett says after that he was treated unfairly, placed on duty in the county jail as punishment not only for his accident, but for his interest in challenging Jones.
"At that time, I turned in my resignation and said ‘I'm going to run for sheriff,'" Hammett says.
Hammett says one of the biggest lessons he's learned is that the public "doesn't have a clue" about how law enforcement works. He wants to rectify that.
One of the first things he'll do if he's elected, Hammett says, is put more officers on patrol duty. He states there are usually only about 12 patrol officers on duty in the county at any given time. (Jones disputes this number.)
"You have got to get people out on the street. You're going to see more officers than you've ever seen," Hammett says. "I'll double patrol without any cost to the taxpayers. We're also going to be a highly trained police force."
Hammett says he's going to be visible and available to the people he serves if elected. He has his real home address and phone number on his business cards, and he says he wants to have more direct contact with people on a regular basis.
"I'm going to have video conferences at least once a month, where anybody can get on, like Google [Hangouts]. Not only do officers need to be at community meetings, but you need to be there yourself," Hammett says.
Hammett also says he'll use the taxpayers' money to invest in tools and equipment that save money. He himself drives a hybrid Chevrolet Volt, and he says KCSO needs to move away from gas-guzzling SUVs to vehicles that would be more efficient police cruisers.
" [KCSO] bought the Chargers. Chevrolet has the Impalas that have a fuel management system. [We should] do everything that is possible to save money without jeopardizing people's safety," Hammett says.
Hammett says his number-one safety priority is Knox County Schools. If elected, he says he'll put a certified officer in every single school. (Currently some schools have school resource officers and a KCSO or KPD officer that rotates between schools). Hammett says he also wants to have more officers patrolling bus routes while buses pick up kids to go to school and to go home.
"I'm not saying I'm going to have officers following the bus. But if they're available, I want them on that bus route. If there's an incident or if there's a problem, you have an officer there almost immediately," Hammett says.
Though he hasn't been briefed on the KCSO's plan to switch jail visitation to video-only, Hammett questions whether it's worth the change.
"When you see someone in person—their morale needs to be up, too. Please show me how that saves [taxpayers] money," he says.
But Hammett says the recent change in the mail policy is probably a good thing. Now inmates can only send and receive legal correspondence, postcards, and e-mails.
"That is a secure facility, and the only way drugs get in there is mail or people" Hammett explains.
The bottom line, Hammett says, is that he won't be the sheriff to play politics.
"I have no political contacts with anyone. There is no one I owe favors to. My concern is the safety of everyone here. There are no politics," he says.
JIMMY "J.J." JONES
Jones has worked in the KCSO for 34 years. When he first took over the office of the sheriff, he says he promised Knox County residents that he'd keep the schools safe, put prisoners to work, and make crime statistics more open and available to the public.
Jones says he's kept those promises.
"Now we have an officer in every school—that being a school resource officer, or a sheriff's officer, or a KPD officer. We're two years into the inmate worker program. The first year the inmates did over 80,000 hours for nonprofits. Last year it was over 125,000 hours. We also have a crime mapping system online that's available to anyone for free," he says.
The crime map was the second of its kind in Tennessee, Jones says. As for the officer in every school? Every school has an armed resource officer trained by either KCSO or the Knoxville Police Department. But in some cases, KPD and KCSO officers rotate between schools on a single campus.
"I think the bottom line on that is it comes down to dollars and cents. There's a school resource officer, and the initiation of them costs the taxpayer a third of what it would cost to initiate a sheriff's officer or a KPD officer," he says.
His top priority for his next term, if re-elected, is getting the long-talked-about safety center up and running.
"We look forward to diverting people with mental illness, dependence on alcohol and drugs, away from a jail setting. They don't need to be there. It's not fair to them, nor is it fair to the taxpayers," Jones says. "I think that's the key to solving some of the community problems with the homeless, with the drug-addicted people. Once that happens, I think we'll see the numbers in our jails go down."
Whether or not the center will ultimately save the county money remains to be seen.
"I was asked whether the safety center will save us money. I believe it will. But I believe those are numbers we have to look at 10, 12 months down the road, and get the hard numbers, and not guess. I wouldn't want to speculate on whether it would or not, but we think it will," Jones says.
Despite Hammett's and Waggoner's claims, Jones disagrees that there aren't enough officers in neighborhoods.
"That is intentional deception. There are more officers patrolling neighborhoods in Knox County than ever before," Jones says.
Jones says that since he took office, he's added 12 patrol officers to each of the five patrol shifts, bringing the total number of officers on each patrol shift to about 30 officers. On top of the regular patrol officers, Jones says there's about 220 detectives, narcotics, school resource, and traffic officers working throughout the community.
"It'd be great to have 100 patrolmen on a shift. But you only have a certain amount of people to deal with. So if you're going to put more people on patrol, then some other area that we do for the citizens of Knox County has to suffer. It's a delicate balance," he says.
The Knox County jails have recently seen some changes to policies, switching to video visitation only. Jones says plenty of kiosks will be available for family members and friends to see their loved ones for free. (He said to direct further questions about the change to Rodney Bivens, the director of corrections for the KCSO.)
As a veteran of the office, Jones says he knows what works and what doesn't, and he'll continue to use his knowledge to improve the safety of Knox County without the need to acclimate to a new job.
"I understand the ins and outs, I understand how things work. I don't have to say that I would come in and do a top to bottom evaluation. That's what people say when they don't know what to do. I know what to do," Jones says.
Waggoner's ideas for the sheriff's office are, he admits, old-school. He wants a return to community-oriented policing.
After 32 years as an officer for the Southern Railway Police Department in 22 states, Waggoner retired in 2000. He and his wife moved back to Knoxville, their hometown, where he then joined KCSO.
Waggoner first worked as an assistant chief deputy and then as the chief of detectives. He retired again last September, but he's quick to point out he only collects the pension he earned as a railroad officer.
If elected, Waggoner says he'll start with a top-to-bottom review of the sheriff's office.
"Leadership starts at the top. Whatever the guy at the top does, everybody else understands what's going on. I'm about mature, responsible leadership, and doing the right thing, and looking out for the community," Waggoner says.
One thing his leadership philosophy does not include is relying on politics, or using his power to influence local politics, Waggoner says, pointing out that Jones has recently stood up and voiced his support for Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre's contract extension.
"If I were sheriff, I wouldn't be lobbying the school board, or lobbying the county commission to get someone appointed. The sheriff has no business in non-law enforcement matters. If school security's a problem, then yes, I would go to the school board," he says.
Waggoner was the first candidate to claim that there are usually less than 30 officers patrolling a neighborhood, as Jones claims there are. Waggoner says that of the five patrol shifts, only three work within a 24-hour period, and that only about half of the officers are actually on patrol duty. (The other half have dedicated roles—such as detectives—that don't involve actively patrolling.)
Waggoner adds, "You've got vacations, you've got training, you've got sick time, you've got comp time. You may not have those 12, 15 people."
Waggoner says he'd increase the number of officers dedicated to patrolling neighborhoods.
"More visibility in the neighborhoods prevents crimes. Instead of being reactive, we need to be proactive and prevent some of it by patrolling the neighborhood. There's no way you can patrol the neighborhoods when you've just got enough people to answer calls. You've got to have more," Waggoner says. "It's just unacceptable to me that we don't have more visibility in the neighborhoods because everybody I've talked to across the county want their kids to be able to play out in the neighborhood without their house broken into."
Waggoner also says he'd spend the department's $72 million budget more wisely.
"I think some of the resources need to be reallocated to neighborhood safety, community safety in general," Waggoner says. "Those SUVs cost about $44,000 apiece. You can buy a regular patrol car for $22,400. You can almost buy two cars for one SUV."
Waggoner says he'd also like to form a stronger partnership with KPD to combat the growing number of gangs and gang members in the city and the county.
"We should work together. We shouldn't have the problem with drugs and gangs that we have," he says.
As for the recent changes in mail and visiting policies at the jails, Waggoner says, "It becomes an issue of human rights, human dignity," adding that just because people are imprisoned doesn't mean they're no longer human beings.
But what Waggoner says he can bring to the table for Knox County that neither of his opponents can is his commitment to accountability and his 44 years of police service.
"Serve the community with dignity and respect, and the community will respect you," Waggoner says. "I've said before I'll be a full-time sheriff, and I'll be there every day to focus on the safety of the community. I'll try to improve wherever we can."
He says he'll rely on his experience as an officer to make decisions and get things done, and not on any political favors.
"I don't have a big ego," Waggoner says. "I don't have any buddies to take care of. I don't have any people I owe things to. It's just little old me."