Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department focuses on community, safety under new leadership
As Jefferson County celebrates its bicentennial, it welcomes a new era of law enforcement—under the leadership of Sheriff Mark Pettway. As the county’s first African American sheriff, Pettway made history when voters elected him last November. Now he hopes to lead Jefferson County to a safer future. Pettway was sworn in on January 11, 2019. He’s already hard at work to fulfill his campaign promises. He’s assembled them into a program called One Community.
“We want to bring everyone together to have a dialog on how to stop the violence,” Pettway says.
Pettway’s vision for Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department centers on schools, safety, diversity, and recidivism. Here are his plans to build One Community.
Build a service-oriented police force.
“Only sixty days in, our department has become more service-oriented,” says public information officer Captain David Agee. “We work for the people. Our response should be, ‘How can we help you?’ We want to be the peacemakers.”
Pettway wants law enforcement visible in, and accessible to, the public. He encourages officers to get out of the car and talk to people. The more citizens and police engage with each other, the more they can help each other.
When the public trusts police officers, they’re more likely to report suspicious activity or describe what they saw as a witness. “We want people to see us as approachable,” says Agee.
As part of its community-policing plan, Jefferson County patrol deputies now wear body cameras. Body cameras improve safety, help solve crime, and encourage good behavior by both police officers and the public.
Protect our schoolchildren.
According to government statistics, between one in four and one in three U.S. students have been bullied at school. The effects of bullying may last into adulthood.
Pettway believes education is key to prevent bullying. “If we teach kids to respect and treat each other fairly, it’s more proactive than helping children who are being bullied,” Pettway says.
To keep schools safe from violent acts, Pettway plans to appoint a resource officer on every elementary and high school campus. School resource officers are deputies trained in tactical situational awareness who are prepared to protect kids from school violence.
Stop recidivism in jails.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 68% of released prisoners were arrested within three years. Pettway hopes to break the pattern by giving former inmates a better chance at success.
The sheriff’s department is partnering with Lawson State Community College to help inmates earn their GEDs and learn a trade. Studies show that individuals who complete such programs are 90% less likely to become repeat offenders. “They’ll be able to find a good-paying job so they won’t come back again,” says Pettway. “They’ll also make sure their children don’t end up in jail, breaking the cycle.”
Diversity in hiring
The people of Jefferson County showed by their vote that they wanted change and embraced diversity. While the sheriff’s department has increased diversity over the past few decades—it had to under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, entered into in 1982—it can do better.
“Our hiring should reflect the basis of the community,” says Agee. “We want to hire more black, Hispanic, and female deputies so everyone will feel more comfortable.”
Agee recalled a situation where a translator helped foster communication between the sheriff’s department and a Spanish-speaking witness. The translator helped the witness feel more comfortable, and his input helped solve a crime. “Our Hispanic population is growing and we want them to be able to talk to us,” Agee says.
A new jail
Pettway says plans are in the works for Jefferson County to house a new regional jail. The new jail would incarcerate inmates from all municipalities. “The regional jail would relieve municipalities of their duties to house inmates so they can concentrate on patrolling their cities,” he says. “As jails get older, we’re looking forward to this regional corporation.”
A new vision
Pettway, a former Property Crimes Unit sergeant, has served in local law enforcement since 1991. The life-long Jefferson County resident has investigated robberies and attempted murders, investigated cases of white-collar fraud and money laundering, and captured a handgun-carrying trespasser at Minor High School.
Pettway has proven himself a leader in the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, in the community, and in his church. “Sheriff Pettway is well known throughout the city,” says Agee. “His popularity and his reputation made him the right candidate at this time. He wasn’t the first black candidate, but he was the first right one.”