Commentary: Keep a keen eye on sheriff departments

April 19, 2021 4:00 am
Knox County Sheriff's office (Photo: KCSD Facebook)

Knox County Sheriff’s office (Photo: KCSD Facebook)

Sheriff departments are a lot more than law enforcement agencies, especially in Tennessee.  In our counties, the sheriff is an elected position—the chief jailer of our lockup, a major employer, and leader of a political power base.  Several recent events in my home county, Knox, offer good case studies on why careful press and public oversight is needed, if often missing, difficult, or belated.

Let’s start with Scooby and Ivan.  Last month the Knox County Sheriff’s Office fired three employees of its inmate work program, and two of them were former county commissioners: Scott “Scooby” Moore and Ivan Harmon (no relation).  The allegations of an internal investigation include that Moore and Harmon sold departmental scrap metal and wooden pallets and did not turn over the proceeds which could have tallied thousands of dollars across several years.  The pair deny the allegations, claiming they used the money for pizza for work crews and other work expenses.  They also deny other claims they took inmates for work on private properties, including their own residences.

Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler (Photo: Knox County Sheriff's Department)
Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler (Photo: Knox County Sheriff’s Department)

I served with both on County Commission, and counted both as reliable votes for the “sheriff’s posse”, a group of commissioners with strong links or affinity to the Sheriff’s Department, and who could be counted on to take its perspective on matters.  Moore, a sheriff’s deputy from 1986 to 2001, had served as chair of Knox County Commission, but was removed from office because a judge ruled he had given false testimony in a legal proceeding.

Adding to the soap-opera-like intrigue of the whole matter is that former Sheriff J. J. Jones has called the firings “a political hack job.”  Jones, who initially hired all three of the now- fired men, will challenge current Sheriff Tom Spangler in the 2022 Republican primary for sheriff.  Jones served out a partial term for sheriff, then was elected to two more.  Thus, he was sheriff from 2008 to 2018.  Under the spirit of term limits, Jones should not be running again.  However, Jones relies on the “consecutive” language.  The Knox County Charter reads “No person shall be eligible to hold, or be elected to, the same elected office of Knox County for more than two consecutive terms.”  Later wording effectively says partial terms don’t count.

Both Spangler and Jones notably are big fans of, and advocates for, one of the most egregious choices of our Sheriff’s Department, namely the anti-immigrant 287(g) program.

At the start of this month, Knoxville News Sentinel reporter Tyler Whetstone and local Compass news site reporter/editor/owner Jesse Fox Mayshark published the results of their collaborative investigation of this Immigration and Customs Enforcement program.  The program can be traced to a 1996 law allowing the delegation of some federal authority on immigration to local law enforcement.  Imagine this Kafkaesque world where one can be stopped for a minor traffic violation, and then be jailed facing potential deportation, family separation, and huge legal costs.

Jones jumped at the chance to check on detainee immigrant status and even initiative deportation proceedings.  When Jones’ initial effort to join 287(g) was rejected in 2012, he blurted on the sheriff website, “I will continue to enforce these federal immigration violations with or without the help of U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If need be, I will stack these violators like cordwood in the Knox County Jail until the appropriate federal agency responds.”

By 2017, Jones had the authority he wanted.  One problem, he never sought what appears to be a requirement for county commission approval.  Furthermore, Spangler did not notify the governor and legislature about 287(g) renewal agreements in 2019 and 2020.  State law requires notice to the governor and legislature when entering into federal immigration agreements.

Former Knox County Sheriff J.J. Jones jumped at the chance to implement the controversial anti-immigrant 287(g) program, saying he would “stack these violators like cordwood in the Knox County Jail.

Greene is the only other Tennessee county currently participating in 287(g).  Both Greene and Knox insist their mutual failures to seek commission approval are no big deal.

Some of the details of the twisted tales of 287(g) have come to light because of the efforts of University of Tennessee Sociology Assistant Professor Meghan Conley and her attorney.  She has battled in court to pry documents loose from the Sheriff’s Department.  By late last year open records and common sense prevailed.  A court ordered Knox County Sheriff’s Office to pay Conley’s attorneys $75,202.50 in fees, and $2,805.25 to Conley herself.

So, what has been going on in your county’s sheriff department?  Are you confident that bad craziness does not lurk beneath the surface?

(Featured photo: Knox County Sheriff’s office Photo: KCSD Facebook)

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Mark Harmon
Mark Harmon

Mark D. Harmon is a professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee.