The JFP Interview With Tyrone Lewis | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The JFP Interview With Tyrone Lewis

Photo by Keya Hudson

Tyrone Lewis, former Jackson Police officer (1983-2010), police chief and Democratic candidate for Hinds County Sheriff, is not a small man. He stands about 6 feet, but his barrel chest is like a cowcatcher on a 19th-century steam locomotive. When he flexes his arms, the muscles beneath the skin tumble over one another like a bag of basketballs.

This year will mark Lewis' second attempt at replacing Hinds County Sherriff Malcolm McMillin, who beat back Lewis four years ago with the support of rural areas and fair support inside the city. Lewis believes the tables may have turned this time around.

During the interview, Lewis made a point to introduce "American's Toughest Sheriff," a book by controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for making inmates live in tents to make space at the county jail and wear pink. Lewis says he's not as controversial as the Arizona hothead, although like Arapio, he is looking to devise new ways of solving old problems.

You know about the bills, the headaches and the drain upon resources that is the county jail. There's also the lack of resources and the rotten budget. Why do you want to be sheriff?
I'm a public servant. This is something I've been doing ever since I got out of college. Some people find their calling later in life. I was lucky enough to find my calling early in life. I was very successful at the Jackson Police Department, and I want to take those successes to the highest-ranking law-enforcement agency in the county.

What's the difference between the police department and the sheriff's department?
The sheriff has more authority and more power. And he has to do more things with resources because he has more than one municipality to deal with.

You're right about that, and there will be an issue with spreading those resources over those municipalities. Places like Clinton and Jackson will compete for patrol vehicles. How do you strike a balance between those places?
The key to that is developing relationships and partnerships with their municipal police departments. Most of them are small, like Bolton, Edwards and Clinton, and everybody needs to sit at the table. No one entity can do it by themselves. We have a Bolton Police Department that doesn't have but two or three people in it. You want to define what their issues are. If its drug-related, for example, then you want to team them up with the sheriff's department's narcotics team and the state drug task force. It's a matter of shuffling manpower to where the needs are, and you can redistribute manpower on a daily basis. With the police department, we followed our COMSTAT assessment and deployed manpower where the greatest need was, often differently every week.

Overcrowding at the county jail is a popular issue. What's your plan to deal with it?
You need to have a better relationship with the Mississippi Department of Corrections and with the commissioner himself. The county houses a lot of state inmates, but you've got to think of the safety of the inmates and the employees. If there's room at the state facility, they need to house their own prisoners. Also, you want to keep prisons open to more violent offenders versus less violent offenders. I want to look at work-release programs. There's no need to pull over somebody and incarcerate him for three days over a $35 speeding ticket. You're looking at a food service bill and medical bills, which can drive the $35 gained to a $5,000 bill. It's better to develop a work-release program for people to work off their fines, and it frees up space as well.

This kind of program requires permission from a judge, right?

You'd think judges would be all over this tactic already.
It has to be presented to them first, and you have to befriend them. I think I have a pretty good relationship with a lot of the judges, including two of the new judges, Judge Jeff Weill, who just got elected, and Melvin Preister. I'd be willing to sit down at the table and talk to them. It's a matter of presenting this to them.

How much do we bring in from the state for housing their prisoners?
$29 per day, per inmate, approximately.

Is that money we can afford to give up to make space for our local folks?
It depends on our (county) assessment. If you're housing more violent offenders, then no; you have to clear out your serious offenders first. Revenue will definitely be important, but it shouldn't be a key factor when you're facing serious overcrowding.

How do you intend to deal with budget shortfalls?
It's not a tough question for me. When I was picked to be interim chief April 1, 2009, the first thing they told me was to cut the budget by 3 percent without disrupting public safety. At the time, the budget was $38 million. We were able to cut that budget and maintain our manpower without disrupting public service. The sheriff's department is smaller than JPD, and we need to assess it and see what we can cut while keeping public safety in place. I notice they've got a furlough right now, but public safety should be the last division with a furlough. I would look in the budget to see how many deputies we can afford to hire to put on the street, and I want to supplement their numbers by revamping and re-instituting the volunteer-reserve unit.

How did you work out a 3 percent budget cut? What was that fairy magic?
We went through the budget with a fine-tooth comb, prioritized need, whether we had to cut paper, paper clips and pencils to save public safety, and we gave up those things that we could do without.

Cutting paperclips did that? Seriously, what sacred cows had to go?
When you say sacred cows, what do you mean? Personnel?

Anything—programs, people—what had to be jettisoned?
Nothing. Nothing had to go. In fact, we brought programs back. We were able to bring back programs like the Quality of Life program. We brought back the reserve unit.

You have no plans when you walk in the door of considering lay-offs?

Layoffs aren't even on the table?

Is that a healthy way of considering budget solutions, by removing options from the table?
I don't think it's an option that we have to consider.

How would you have handled the issue of abuse at the county jail?
I'm the former training director for the Jackson Police Department. What we need to look at is their hiring practices, and we need to have criteria for hiring jailers and then make sure they get the appropriate training. The state requires correction officers to go through 80-hour training courses—funds reimbursed to the agency that sends them off for training. They need that, and continuing education training as well. Also, you can't just hire anybody who wants a job. It requires hiring people with patience, integrity and the understanding that they're going to be locked up as well.

These guys aren't paid much. What kind of personalities will work for that kind of money?
That's something else you've got to look at. We're the largest sheriff's department in the state, and we should set an example as far as salaries, training and equipment. We need a salary adjustment to get the best and brightest people.

Supervisors will tell you that we don't have the budget resources to spare for salary increases almost every time. What will you say different to convince them?
I'm very frugal. I've proven that I'm a good manager of money. They have to see a proposal to show them exactly how the money's being spent, line item by line item. They have to see where the raises will be going. We need to be able to show supervisors how the money is being spent so that we can afford to put raises where they need to go.

Running for sheriff means there's room for improvement in the office. What do you plan to do differently from the incumbent?
I'm going to be more visible in incorporated areas in Jackson, and I'll be more transparent with taxpayers' money, and I'll be more accessible. I don't think enough of that in Jackson. There's a misunderstanding that the sheriff is restricted to the rural areas, and that's not the case. Hinds County is more than just rural areas. I definitely plan to be seen in more neighborhoods so the public gets a sense of safety seeing deputies involved in their neighborhoods.

More visibility means getting more people out on the street. How many deputies are there?
The figures I got on paper last month was 118 certified deputies. They've got 81 reserve deputies. That gives you a large number. I want to look at the budget to see how many more than 118 we can hire, for the sake of visibility, and I want to conduct more classes for reserve deputies. They're not paid, so they don't affect the budget, and they're obligated to the department for at least 16 hours a month. That's what I did as Jackson police chief. You saw a police vehicle at almost every red light because reserve officers helped offset the sworn officers.

Do reserve officers get their own patrol vehicles?
Yes, and we need to do an assessment to see what is the budget for vehicles.

That's good, because there's a brick wall waiting for you to beat your head on regarding gas allowances.
You have to always anticipate gas prices being a problem.

Again, we need an assessment by a team of the brightest and best minds to break down areas to patrol into smaller beats, like we did in Precinct 1, to make sure we have quicker and better response time and more efficiency with our gasoline. We'll have to be creative. As technology changes, so must
law enforcement.

Fuel-efficient vehicles? Hybrids?
If they're affordable, and we can budget for them. And you also have Segways. There's a lot of creative technology to help run a department.

It's tough enough convincing supervisors to replace your old cars. Good luck. What plans to do you have to try to counter recidivism?
We're going to develop strong partnerships with other agencies that we don't have now. We don't want criminals thinking they can come here and do bad business in this county. It's the same fear you get in Madison or Rankin County. We need to put our egos aside and bring everyone to the table. If there are mentoring programs or college incentive programs that need to be reinforced for crime prevention, we need to do that. We don't need to reinvent the wheel. There are programs out there. Also, we need to do an evaluation of each person that comes to the jail to put them back in society, and make them a more productive person.

It's hard to get a job if you've got a record. People just don't hire you. How can you help that?
I don't have all the answers, but I intend to bring work programs to the table and introduce them to inmates going back into society. I want to introduce potential employers to potentially good workers. There's a lot of construction going on across Hinds County. You have to take advantage of what's out there. Until you can get where you want to go, we want to try to open up doors to get you where we can.

You mentioned that you would work more with surrounding law enforcement to combat crime in the area.
We deal with many of the same clients, or criminals. I'm able to extend an olive branch to different agencies. As police chief, we were able to form teams and partnerships with other agencies.

This implies that the guy in there already isn't doing enough. In what ways is he not doing all he can to be a good partner with Madison and Rankin counties and other agencies?
I've had talks with agencies in the tri-county area, and they're looking to form relationships with the Hinds County Sheriff's department ... which they don't have now.

So there's a barrier to these types of relationships in Hinds County?
That's what I've been told by the agencies that I've been speaking with.

What's the downside to forming relationships with these other agencies? Do you have to share more of the bust money gathered from arrests or something?
That's not the big issue, but it may be part of the issue. Most of it is territory and ego. Everybody wants to be the shining star and get the credit, but as far as drug interdiction that's something everybody should be a part of because everybody gets a part of the pie, whether it's $1 or $2.

You know what kind of personalities you could be dealing with, right? Remember Madison County sheriff candidate Mark Sandridge, the guy describing Hinds County as the kind of place where people eat their own children or something like that? Could you work with a personality like that?
I can. I'm the type of person who believes in building relationships rather than building walls. I will be the one to reach out and keep that line of communication open, rather than putting up walls. ... We need to stay involved with other agencies and city government to send a message that this is a safe place to live and shop.

Law enforcement has to take a new attitude in public safety. They have to be in touch with city government. They have to be in touch with county and state government to attract the tax base and keep a community thriving. You can't sit back and not be involved in the planning and development of a community.

Let's a get a gauge on your personal feelings. Say a deputy catches two African American young people sharing a joint. Do these young people need to be in jail?
I think there needs to be some consequences behind that, but jail time is a question that depends on the amount. The underlying factor that everybody is missing when it comes to youth is that we may have a problem with youth, but the youth have their problems because we're not holding adults accountable.

Let me rephrase this: OK, Let's say we got a couple of 43-year-old slackers caught in a car with a joint. Again, philosophically, do you think they need to be in jail?
Well, according to the law, they should be arrested. I can't be the top law-enforcement officer and tell my deputies to look the other way.

But is that a waste of resources? Admittedly, you're not a legislator; you're a sheriff. But if you had a chance to change it, would that be a law that needed changing?
I've been looking at this situation across the nation. In other states they've legalized this kind of thing.

My opinion, as a law enforcement officer, is that the jury is still out on whether or not it should be. Under the law, they should be processed by the system. But should they stay in jail two or three days for that? No; I don't agree with that.

I'd prefer to put them on a work-relief program, and then maybe see if they need any rehabilitation help.

Yeah, those guys would welcome that rehabilitation, I can tell you. Hey, remember the Arizona bill that almost made it through our Legislature this year? It would have demanded that your deputies inquire about suspects' residency status and then hold them in jail if they are determined to be undocumented residents. What were your personal feelings?
I still have mixed feelings about that law. Of course, whatever the Legislature passes as law we have to enforce, but we would have to be creative enough to find ways to house them.

Anything that's on the books you have to enforce, and as a sheriff, you have to be creative with the resources you have to accommodate a situation like that.

I've seen some creative work, like Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He already had in mind what he was going to do with his tent city. That would be an option I would be looking at.

Take off your sheriff's hat for a minute and put on you accountant's visor and tell me: Were you nervous about that bill?
I was.

Because of the potential drain that it represented to the county budget?
Most definitely.

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