What does it take to be a sheriff?
Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 1, 2009
NATCHEZ — All seven candidates on Tuesday’s ballot for sheriff bring to the table a significant amount of law enforcement experience, but voters need to be aware of more than just crime credentials, state and local officials say.
Business know-how, education, integrity, communication skills, a selfless nature and, of course, experience, are all necessary qualities for a good sheriff, said Sheriff Willie March, the president of the Mississippi Sheriff’s Association.
In order to serve the public, a sheriff must combine professional and personal characteristics and apply them to his or her administration.
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“A sheriff has to be a committed person,” said March, who is sheriff in Holmes County. “A sheriff should have concern about the community in which he serves.”
Concordia Parish Sheriff Randy Maxwell, on the job for approximately 20 years, said there are certain personal traits a good sheriff exhibits.
“A sheriff has to have true compassion. He has to have the ability to work well with others — not only within his office, but within the community,” Maxwell said. “He has to have the qualities of a leader and a motivator. If he’s successful, the community will be successful.”
Voters must always weigh the value of experience versus the benefits of a book education when it comes to selecting elected officials, but Franklin County Sheriff James Newman said during the past 30 years the demand for professional experience has risen, especially when it comes to voters selecting who protects them.
“(Voters) know now they need someone who knows about law enforcement,” Newman said. “Education is not worth a dime unless you can take your education and apply common sense to it.”
Candidates in this election bring a varying level of experience to the table, from a high school diploma to a master’s degree in criminal justice. Others have received on-the-job educational opportunities through law enforcement clinics and classes.
Combined, the field has 180 years of experience, and each individual has more than 10 years on the job.
But some experienced law enforcers say when it comes down to serving and protecting those in their counties, experience trumps education.
“There is nothing more valuable than experience,” Maxwell said. “They don’t teach in school what abilities you need when you become sheriff or what happens when they pin this badge on you. That’s not in the books, but that’s the most critical thing.”
Newman said during his 27 years spent as Franklin County sheriff, he has come to realize that his job doesn’t start and end at his office door.
A good sheriff must be able to work alongside other law enforcement chiefs and sheriffs, always with the best interest of the public in mind.
“You always stay open minded. You work together,”
Newman said. “In major catastrophes and tragedies, you don’t really stop at the county line. If another sheriff is in a bind, you help each other.”
And that spirit service must extend beyond law enforcement circles as well, Maxwell said.
“I think the ability to listen to people and the ability to never forget that you represent all the people is important,” he said. “I spend just as much time with the poorest guy that we have, and I give him just as much attention as I give the richest guy we have.”
But it may be the biggest misconception about the job of sheriff that in fact carries the greatest responsibility, the sheriffs said.
As sheriff, you aren’t on the streets chasing robbers day in and day out, they said. Though the sheriff must be involved in crime fighting, his bigger job duties are in the office.
One particular responsibility of a sheriff that Maxwell said is often overlooked is the managing of the office’s budget and hiring deputies who uphold the law to the highest degree.
“The cops and robbers part of this job is the easiest thing I do,” he said. “It’s the management of the people and the management of the money that is the most challenging thing you do every day.”
Adams County has allocated $3.6 million to the sheriff’s office for this year, which the elected sheriff will be in charge of managing in three sub-categories — the sheriff’s office, the jail and courthouse security.
According to March, the honor of serving as high sheriff sometimes comes at a high cost.
“Sometimes your family may suffer, but that’s just part of it,” March said. “If you’re sheriff, they call you, and you have to answer the telephone. You have to be approachable so people can talk to you and get in touch with you.”
However, at the end of the day, Newman said some of the most basic principles of being a good sheriff are an open mind, an open heart and the desire to take care of the people you’re sworn to protect.
“They don’t expect you to be a hero every day — they just expect you to do your best,” Newman said.
Polls in the Adams County sheriff’s election open at 7 a.m. Tuesday and close at 7 p.m.
Candidates are Ray Brown, Cliff Cox, Randy Freeman, Craig Godbold, Chuck Mayfield, Roosevelt Owens and Greg Wisner.
For candidate profiles, visit www.natchezdemocrat.com.