Sheriff Jim Hammond told members of the Pachyderm Club on Monday that a problem he is now having involves staffing the sheriff’s department. He said that there is rigorous vetting for “those who carry guns,” and those standards are making it difficult to hire and train people.
There is also continuing education and on-going training that is required. But, pay is the biggest problem, he said. The sheriff’s correctional department is now 25 officers short and they must work overtime and just get worn out, he said. The patrol officers are six short. He is hoping to increase pay to be able to compete with other agencies. A corrections officer starting salary is $35,000 plus benefits, which causes most to work a second part time job.
It costs $99,000 today, and costs of everything continue to rise, he said. "We can’t spend our way out of the problem. Looking at individuals and trying to get them out of the system would be a way to control expenses of the Sheriff’s Department."
Sheriff Hammond, who is now in his third term, said his responsibilities fall into three categories: keeper of the jail, server of the process and law enforcement.
As keeper of the jail, he is responsible for the safety and security of Hamilton County inmates as well as citizens. There are currently around 1,400 people incarcerated including 300 females. It costs the taxpayer $99,000 every 24 hours to keep these inmates, he said, so it is important to look for ways to get and keep people out of that system by making them useful citizens again. Using Chicago as a role model he said that people arrested there are seen by councilors the next day who assist in customizing ways to rehabilitate them through physical, emotional and spiritual programs.
The Sheriff’s Office has 400 employees whose main responsibility is to unincorporated areas in the county, however the officers are also is “in and out” of the seven municipalities that are in Hamilton County because the smaller towns may not have needed equipment.
The Sheriff’s office also works closely with the city of Chattanooga and the two entities have joint ventures. One is the firing range at Moccasin Bend. He said that location is wanted for further business development and tourism, but it will not be moved until new land is procured for building a new facility. He said he is not opposed, but it will take $5 to $8 million to move and build a basic new firing range which will need to be confined to indoors. He said that negotiations are now taking place with TVA for property that is not near water, that they are reluctant to give up. The city and county would also like to build a Southeastern regional law enforcement training academy together which could be used also by ATF, DEA, FBI, local military and other local police departments. He said he is also looking to train SWAT teams in cooperation with Chattanooga.
As server of the process the Sheriff’s Department delivers paperwork from many type of legal experts, he said.
The law enforcement element includes patrol officers, detectives, swat teams, a drone unit, the only dive team in Hamilton County and the SRO division. Currently there are 34 School Resource Officers in 79 Hamilton County schools. Federal grants funded eight SROs last year and a second federal grant this year has provided six more. The county has given money for some and the department of education has funded seven others. The SROs do more than stand at the door, they get to the schools before they are open, and they mentor students and gather intelligence by just listening to kids talk. These officers are now in all high schools, most middle schools but at no elementary schools, which is needed because Sheriff Hammond said fifth and sixth graders are at the age targeted by drug dealers.
The county now has two jails, the one in downtown Chattanooga and a second that was formerly Silverdale Workhouse. There are negotiations going on for replacing the one downtown since architects have determined that it cannot be rehabilitated. The estimate to do this is from $50 to $100 million, said the sheriff. The county has pledged $20 million toward the new jail. Most courts will remain where they are downtown, but a few sessions courts may be moved to the Silverdale facility.
The jails have become the largest mental health hospitals, said Sheriff Hammond, with 40 percent of the inmates having mental health problems. He said that the officers are kept from doing their jobs because they are tied up by transporting those with mental health issues back and forth to the hospitals. We spend hundreds of hours now, taking patrol officers off of their regular jobs, to be ambulance drivers, he said. That might be changing with a new state bill that will make insurance pay for transportation for those who have it. He said that officers will always continue to transport criminals who have committed crimes such as shootings and murder.
He said that in the last several years, $1 million has been spent in Hamilton County on 50 individuals with mental health issues. At one time medication was thought to be the answer, however when these inmates are released into society, many quit taking the medications and they cycle back through the system again from homelessness, vandalism and panhandling .He advocates building “medical jails” to help with the costs.
Drugs are seen as a major cause of problems. People are inundated with advertisements and prescription drugs are too easy to get, said Sheriff Hammond. But more controls that have been put in place are helping by closing pain management clinics and establishing regulations and limits on the way drugs are prescribed. And, it is also too easy to find instructions on ways to make illegal drugs. There is a correlation with drugs used by young people and school drop-out rates which lead to people not being able to get jobs. A lot of that blame falls on bad parenting skills, he said. “It’s important to hug your son every day and tell him you love him, everyday,” said the sheriff.
Recidivism is being helped, he said by rehabilitation programs that are now being employed such as church and fathering classes that help them learn a better lifestyle said the sheriff. The biggest solution to help reduce costs is to get people out of the system, he said.