I have known and admired Jim Hammond for years and, during that time, we’ve become warm friends. The Hamilton County sheriff is easily one of the best law enforcement officers I have ever known, a professional in every sense, and he has taken the department to the highest standard that it has ever known. What’s more, he is a “good” human being, a man of compassion and decency who I can trust and depend on to do the right thing.
Unfortunately, in his quest to do the right thing he is sometime misunderstood, if that’s the word to use, and after a particularly scathing editorial, I went to see him to clarify what I don’t understand, the missing pieces of life’s puzzle that I find best when you look eye-to-eye with a public official in a private conversation.
Gino Bennett, his Director of Support Services, sat with us and verified everything the sheriff said, at one point admitting that sometimes Hammond is so straight-forward he gets tangled up. “What Gino means is that I talk too much,” the sheriff laughed. “When I said gang members would wind up at the funeral home, I didn’t mean to imply we would shoot anybody but that gang members would send one another if they didn’t quit shooting each other. Sadly, that’s turned out to be the case.”
To me that comment was a small thing. Instead, I wanted to talk about the highly-lauded Explorer Program where an officer bought beer for minors and allegedly had an inappropriate relationship with one member of the outreach for older kids. The Explorer’s program has introduced high school students to law enforcement and five now work for the department.
“We had one of the best patrolmen on the force make a huge mistake. This guy is like a son or brother to our department, but he got himself into a huge mess. He is no longer a patrolman and, as a jailer, he can’t even make an arrest. He was demoted, took a salary hit, and is on a year’s probation. But he’s still a good guy and I made the decision to keep him after our command staff agreed it was the thing to do. I wish I could see 10 years from now, but I am betting he’ll do well because a lot of people in the sheriff’s office believe in him.”
Then I asked Hammond what people found wrong about hiring Tim Gobble to run the jail. From where I sit Tim is a great addition. “He just couldn’t handle East Ridge politics,” the sheriff laughed and I quipped, “Given the choice I probably do better with the jail, too!”
The sheriff worked closely with Tim when he was the sheriff of Bradley County and has a lot of respect for him. “I can already see how he’s cleaning the jail up and his many years in law enforcement make him the ideal guy to have. I’m not about to apologize for hiring someone the caliber of Gobble because you surround yourself with people like Tim and you’ll be a success.”
What about hiring your own son? “He’s another guy I believe in! The city of Chattanooga spent $300,000 designing their website. I hired my son and he did the same thing as an employee – net savings of a quarter-million. Jimmy has wonderful IT skills, which is needed these days, and I am just as proud to have him as any parents who ever hired their own child. You know anybody like that?” the sheriff said. (The happiest days in my life were when I worked with my family.)
What about over-spending in the sheriff’s department? “We have been under budget every year. We had some overtime issues with tornadoes in 2011 and 2012, but we balanced things out by year’s end. We are good stewards of the county’s money, but when you look at 470 square miles that we oversee 24/7, it becomes a challenge we take seriously. Hamilton County is actually 542 square miles, but some local municipalities are set up to provide their own services.”
Talk about the jail. “It is full,” the sheriff shook his head. “Tim is very perceptive and has some good ideas until we can find a permanent guy. There are government mandates that require each prisoner a certain amount of calories a day, but we have figured out a way to serve three meals a day at a cost of $1.25. It takes hard work to get a number that low. We are on track to get two accreditations, which helps attract grant money.”
Your automobile fleet is shrinking. “We have to park some cars. We’ve got over 50 with high mileage, but we may get some help from Mayor Coppinger if he can work things out. I’ll say this - the officers who drive those cars are the best we’ve ever had. We hope to become either the third or fourth sheriff’s department that is nationally certified later this year.”
That is when Bennett jumped in. “The problem I see is that people don’t grasp the big picture of what the Sheriff’s office provides because too often their attention is diverted. For instance, the sheriff earned the front page when the paper said he gave a drug dealer’s car back. The narcotics division actually did that after they learned a boy took his sick mother’s car without permission. Some paperwork wasn’t handled right. The car wasn’t worth $800 and the woman needed it to go get treatments. That isn’t favoritism – its common sense.”
Does Hammond hire his friends or those who give to his campaign? “I’ll admit that if I know somebody’s character and ability and I have an opening that would weigh in their favor just as it would in any other business. I have consistently tried to make great hires because you have far less problems with a quality work force. Face it, the Sheriff’s department is a $28 million business, but its officers and staff make it go.”
Is the Sheriff’s Foundation a success? “You’d better believe it. Not one business we’ve approached has turned us away. We are in our fourth year and have $185,000 that will buy new technology, command-level training and interactive services for the community. It isn’t just the Sheriff’s office – every community police department will benefit. Tom Edd Wilson, who works part time, is a Godsend.”
Hammond also praised the Neighborhood Watch program he instituted, saying it is the largest of any in the state. “Each one is proud to watch out for their neighbors and our response times are commendable. It gives our department thousands of eyes in every part of the county and doesn’t cost the taxpayers a dime.”
All told, Hammond is proud of what he has done and the results that are sometimes ignored by a society that feeds on sensationalism and mankind’s lapse in judgment. “We all make mistakes, but we try to correct them, learn from them, and not repeat them. I am proud of our department and the men and women who serve our county.”
“Mayor Coppinger, after his years in the fire department, has a good grasp of what the Sheriff’s department does on a daily basis and we’ve got some good commissioners. We have very few problems really. I really believe when you look at the total department we have a quality Sheriff’s department that serves everybody who lives in Hamilton County in a very good way.”
That was exactly the answer I was looking for.