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John Howell Column

John Howell Sr.

Law enforcement leadership challenge

A turning point in the history of Panola County law enforcement came in November, 2005 when Sheriff Hugh “Shot” Bright met with deputies following the special election after voters selected him to fill the unexpired term of David Bryan, who had died in April, 2005.

There had been 11 candidates for the post, about half of them from within the sheriff’s department. Many in the department who had not sought office themselves were aligned with someone who had. When Bright faced his deputies and staff in that initial meeting, the mood was not celebratory. Few extended congratulations.

Bright’s first order of business was to encourage everyone to stay on the job. It was genuine. Within a couple of weeks, even deputies who might have initially feared that the new sheriff’s offer was merely superficial window dressing became complimentary of his handling of the transition. Bright chose to ignore that many of the people in the room had openly campaigned against him. Because of that choice, the factions the department had divided into soon disappeared. The sheriff’s department was soon solidly behind its new boss.

We need to borrow from that experience.

Most people in Panola County don’t remember before David Bryan was sheriff. Bryan had held the office since 1976, and during almost 30 years, personnel within the department remained stable. But prior to Bryan, it was traditional that a new sheriff cleaned house, placing supporters in deputy jobs as a reward for their support. It is a well-established patronage system used in most rural Mississippi counties.

When Bright took office in 2005, he recognized that times had changed. Law enforcement required too much manpower and had grown to too formidable a task in Panola County to forego the professionalism and experience already in place at the sheriff’s department.

Now, county law enforcement faces a daunting challenge. State law prohibits the special election to fill Sheriff Bright’s unexpired term from being held before the Nov., 2010 General Election. That means that for almost 14 months, the Panola County Sheriff’s Department will be led by an interim sheriff who could be, along with a number of deputies, a candidate for the job. That’s fine. Everybody who thinks he or she ought to be sheriff should run for the job.

In addition to the normal business of county law enforcement, the interim sheriff will also face the challenge of keeping personnel from dividing among themselves into factions supporting this candidate or that candidate. Division into factions discourages cooperation, and law enforcement officers need cooperation among themselves to be effective. And to be safe.

This responsibility of maintaining the department’s professionalism falls not only to the interim sheriff but also to every employee in the sheriff’s department. If you’re running for office, you owe it to the county — to the taxpayers, the voters, to us — to keep the politicking and police work separate.

That will be difficult, but the extent to which you are able to perform your law enforcement job without promoting your own candidacy or detracting from another’s candidacy will demonstrate whether you possess the statesmanship necessary to hold the office of sheriff. After all, that’s the most important qualification for the job of Panola Sheriff in the 21st Century.