Sunday interview with Sheriff Heath Taylor: 'This job is a privilege bestowed upon me'

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comJune 14, 2014 

Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor is finishing his first term and has been elected -- without opposition -- for a second.

A homegrown, home-spun 27-year law enforcement veteran, Taylor, 46, says being the sheriff is more than a job.

"This job is a privilege bestowed upon me by the people of this community," he said. "And I couldn't have any more respect for that."

Taylor recently sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to talk about his job, his experience, his family and his community.

Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

You had a pretty good week, didn't you -- winning re-election without opposition?

Listen, I have learned in my first term the only way to run an election is unopposed. I obviously still had to work the election, and we had a low turnout, but, man, it was really nice.

Why didn't you have opposition?

I'm not real sure. I think we've had a successful first four years. We've had some issues in that four years and some things that I wish would have gone differently. I think the public can accept that people make mistakes -- things happened -- as long as you're up front and honest with them about it.

And I think that some of my success in this term is, even when things went wrong, we were open and up front and honest about it, corrected the problem and moved forward.

Some of the things that have gone wrong for you have been related to your jail, right?

Early in the term we had an escape, then we had some issues with some employees that did some things wrong and I had to terminate two and put two in jail.

They were having inappropriate relations with an inmate. Inappropriate conversation was termination; inappropriate contact was putting them in jail.

Is the day-to-day operation of that jail the most difficult part of your job?

By far.

Why?

Because we are still on the borderline of having enough people to run the facility. We're working really hard to save the citizens of this county money when it comes to running the facility.

The only way to do that is reduce population in the jail. Period.

So, we're working hard to make sure we can get the people out that can be out or should be out; and hold the people in that need to be held.

What is the population of your jail?

When I took office we were averaging 400 a day, inmate population. We have been able to reduce that. We're teetering between 280 and 300 a day, and that's largely in part because we're working the bonds hard.

The county commission saw the benefit of the ankle bracelet program that we started and that's really a medical saver. If we have a person that is a medical cost to this county and they can't make bond or they don't want to make bond because we're paying all their medical costs, the commission has given me the ability to make that determination, put them out on an ankle monitor, GPS home arrest, and they pay for their own medical at that point. They are out on bond until they go to trial. That is a huge savings to this county.

How much?

Probably over $100,000 a year. Easy.

How big is the jail staff?

It's about 60 employees now.

Let's switch gears a bit. Are you a politician or a law enforcement officer?

I am a law enforcement officer who is trying to survive in a politician's world.

Have you always been a politician?

I don't think I've always been a politician. I have always been an investigator. My whole career has been in investigations.

How many years in this office?

This is my 27th year. So, in my opinion, I just simply have always been taught by my parents to treat people the right way from the beginning. And I just think it takes you a long way. Everybody we deal with who breaks the law aren't bad people. There are some people who break the law who have never been in trouble before in their life, (who) for whatever reason made a bad choice. And I just find if you try to treat those people the right way and are not demeaning... or somebody is better than somebody else, I just think it takes you a long way.

You grew up in this county, right?

I've lived here my whole life.

You've got relatives, you've got friends, you've got people you have known at various stages of your life, and some of them are going to get into trouble, right?

Absolutely.

How difficult is that part of the job?

Here's the thing. You hate it when it happens, but you have to treat people fair and you have to treat everybody the same. Part of my first term, I've had to do things with my family that wasn't pleasant, but it was the right thing to do.

You had a cousin arrested?

Yeah, and it's not the first one. Unfortunately, I've had to put two other cousins of mine in jail during my career for different things. There's nobody who likes to do that. But I think you just have to do the right thing, Chuck. I mean, my family can't break the law because I'm the sheriff. My kids can't break the law because I'm the sheriff.

Even though they're 13 and 7, eventually they are going to grow up if I'm still in office and have the fortunate ability to be here then -- they've got to know the same thing. They have consequences for their actions.

Friends and family know I'll help as much as I can. But if you cross the line, there's nothing I'm going to do for you. You're going to have to pay for whatever it is that you've done. I think the public expects that and I think they are happy about that, that they've got somebody that will enforce the law no matter who it is.

You know just about everybody in this county?

Close. I wouldn't say I know everybody because of our military population coming in, but you police here for 27 years and you're going to run across a lot of people, either at functions or in law enforcement. They've been a victim of something, they've been an offender, you do run across and get to know a lot of people and that's part of it, I think.

This county is unique in the state of Alabama. There's no other 60,000-person county in the state that is adjacent to 200,000 citizens, right?

Sheriff (Tommy) Boswell and I have talked about this so many times. If you took Russell County and sat it in the middle of the state of Alabama, away from the border of Columbus, Ga., and Fort Benning, we would not need a 300- or 400-person jail. But because of where we are, you know, the community, the Bi-City community, we need the facility that we have. There's no question about that. But you know, we're somewhat of a bedroom community of Columbus, but at the same time we are unique and we are our own individualized community. There are pros and cons to that.

You take Fort Benning for example. In the last five years, you've have a small city develop in Fort Mitchell.

Sure. We've built 1,500 homes in four years in Fort Mitchell.

Does that bring law enforcement challenges?

That brings a ton of law enforcement challenges. Think about who the people are -- soldiers. Policing soldiers is extremely different from policing the community.

Why?

Well, they are the trained killers of our society. They're trained for hand-to-hand, weapons, the whole nine yards. ... You know when you answer a domestic call at a soldier's house in Fort Mitchell, that you're going to potentially be dealing with a house full of weapons, a guy who is trained, maybe a Ranger or a Delta guy, or there's no telling out there. So, it is extremely difficult. ...

And the other thing is because it is military, they are from all walks of life, they are from all over the country, and may or may not live and have the same trends that you do or that this community has as a south Alabama guy. They think differently, so that in itself represents potential problems.

What is the positive aspect of having the military in this community?

The positive aspect is when everybody in the state was having such a financial difficulty, Russell County and Columbus was pretty good. We were financially sound. Russell County was the No. 1 growing county in the state because of BRAC.

So, financially, it has really helped us. And the other thing is I have benefited from it personally at this office with my reserve unit. You know, the military are great people. They have their bad apples, but everybody does. Law enforcement has its bad apples, but the community as a whole, the military as a whole, is there for the same purpose that we are. So, they want to get involved in their community through us. In my reserve unit, I have great reserves that are military people who just want to help and want to come out and ride. So, that has been a tremendous asset for us.

Is that a talent pool that some other sheriffs in the state don't have?

We've talked about it. I have talked about it amongst the sheriffs in our state. They wish they had that talent pool. They truly want that ability to put those people to work because, typically, they are so service-oriented. Sometimes you have to tone them down a little bit from the military, but for the most part, man, they are awesome employees.

More mature?

More mature. They've seen things, they've been there and done that, versus a kid straight out of college who you've got to train from Day One.

You just recently ran the local United Way campaign.

That was an experience I wouldn't trade for anything, but it was a lot of hard work.

Did it pull you out of your comfort zone?

Not so much my comfort zone -- I love meeting people and I think I'm a people person, so meeting different people doesn't bother me at all. But man, it really is time-consuming if you do it the right way and if you really want to put your heart into it ....

Scott Ferguson kind of insisted you do it the right way?

I told him I was going to do it the right way from the beginning. What was so scary for me is it was the first time an Alabama guy had chaired the whole thing. So, I put extra pressure on myself to not let this side of the river down and not embarrass myself or embarrass Phenix City and Alabama. Luckily, everybody really rallied around me and worked hard and came up with the most we've ever raised. It was a lot of fun and people really embraced the idea that we had. You can't talk enough about the staff at United Way for what they do for this community every day. There are not enough words to say.

For someone who is clearly an Alabama guy, you probably understand Columbus on a level others don't because you've worked as an agent with the Metro Narcotics Task Force.

I spent seven years in the drug unit, over there in Columbus on both sides ... I got to know everybody and really created some awesome friendships and some awesome working relationships with Ricky Boren, an awesome guy, Sheriff (John) Darr, before Sheriff Darr it was Ralph (Johnson), (Russell) Traino, and all those guys really taught me a lot. I was younger then and impressionable ....

Were you one of the original "jump-out boys?"

I think I was.

Tell me what a "jump-out boy" is.

We would ride up to areas of crime and if people were soliciting to sell cocaine or crack or whatever, we would get out of a van or truck or whatever it was we were in at the time, and we would try to effect arrest on people who were loitering and potentially selling. We would watch it and would get out and try to take that corner over. And then sometimes we would do reverses. We would act as the people selling and we would take that corner over. It was a lot of fun. Policing back then is different than it is now.

Metro Narcotics Unit, is that an adrenaline high?

Sure it is.

Is that where law enforcement plays on the edge?

I don't think we play on the edge of doing things wrong. It's the one place in law enforcement that deals with the bad element every day.

Face-to-face?

Face-to-face every day. See, when you work in a narcotics unit, you're not dealing with a victim who had something stolen. You're dealing with drug people every day. You're never dealing with a victim; you're dealing with the offenders 24-7, 365. It's the only place in law enforcement that's like that, because every other aspect of law enforcement deals with a victim, a person who has done nothing wrong, but has had something done to them, whether it's a person's crime, whether it's a burglary, or a homicide, or a rape, or a robbery, automobile accident -- it could be anything. But it's the only area in law enforcement that I'm aware of, vice and narcotics, where you're dealing with the offender 24-7.

When you do that as a law enforcement officer, does it change you?

It does. It makes you not trust people. That's why they say you shouldn't be in narcotics but so long.

Seven years was a long time?

Seven years was a long time, but there are people who have been there longer than seven, but seven years was a long time.

When I came out of my unit and came back to the sheriff's office, I didn't know who I could trust. Even though they were a deputy here, I didn't know if I could trust them or not. If they weren't in my unit, if they weren't part of my metro drug unit.... You see the bad so much.

Is it because your survival is dependent on that trust?

Yeah! I mean, like I said, you're doing the worst of this job every day. We kick in houses and doors and trailers and make traffic stops, which are the most dangerous things you can do in this business every day. And if we didn't do it right, or if somebody didn't do their job, we got killed or hurt or injured, and have that potential every day. So yeah, you get very reliant on your partner, your buddy and your team.

In 2003, you were shot during a raid. Has that experience impacted the way you do your job?

Well, that's something that every law enforcement person has to deal with the potential of every day. But you can't let it stop you from doing your job. Has it changed me? Yes. It made me realize how short life is.

It's a constant reminder for me of what we have to deal with daily and to not take the deputies and police officers out there doing it daily for granted. I think that alone makes a better person and a better supervisor.

How long do you plan to be sheriff of Russell County?

I have some plans but I hope to be here for at least a couple of more terms and hopefully the people will allow me to be here.

Do you have other political aspirations?

I don't know that I have other political aspirations. I've had folks talk to me about other political positions.

Alabama Legislature?

Yeah, Alabama stuff, but I don't know about that, Chuck. I'm a law enforcement guy. This is my comfort zone. This office, as bad as sometimes things get, this is what I know and this is what I think I'm good at. And this is an honor to serve the people, and I think sometimes that guys who get here, and I have seen across the state, they almost see it as a right -- and it's not. I don't have a right to be here. I have to earn it every four years. I have to earn the ability to stay and remain the sheriff for the people of this county.

What did Sheriff Boswell teach you?

Exactly that. Do the right thing. He was really simple about it. Do the right thing in every situation. Do your best to always do the right thing and things will work out.

Was he one of your mentors?

Absolutely.

Who are some of your other mentors?

I had several. Different things for different aspects. Steve O'Steen was a great mentor in investigations as far as interviewing and interrogation. Sheriff Boswell was obviously a huge influence on how he handled people and situations. He had that knack for defusing things. I've always thought the world of Ricky Boren and I have watched him in his career. I love the way he handles himself. I think Ricky is a great chief.

A friend of yours?

I am happy to call him a friend. I have had a lot of people I've looked up to and watched how they've handled their career.

I've heard people say you were a good interrogator, that is one of your skill sets. Do you use those interrogation skills with your kids in ways that are not law enforcement related?

Unfortunately, yes.

You learn those skills through repetition, doing them over and over for so long. And there are certain things that you pick up, and unfortunately that's hard to cut off. When I speak to people, period, I'm always watching and listening to the way they answer my questions. I do it to my staff. I do it to my family. And they get frustrated. Sometimes they say, "This ain't an interrogation, this ain't an interview." It does happen and it's funny when they see it.

Does you wife ever say cut it off?

Yeah. She's like, "Heath, stop all the 50 questions," because it's just natural. It's natural when someone gives a response, you follow up with another question if it wasn't the response you were looking for. You have to be specific. If I ask you a certain question and you respond with something that's kind of off base, then you bring them back in focus: "It's not what I asked you. What about this?"

You're doing that with your 13-year-old daughter?

Look, there's no question. She just lost her phone for about a week because of this very thing. She did something and in our conversation I picked up something wasn't right, and then I started asking her about it. She did great, she didn't lie, she told me what she had done and unfortunately she lost her phone for a few days.

So, that makes you a suspicious person by nature?

Sure. For 27 years, 20 of those were in investigations -- seven with narcotics and 13 with general investigations. Yeah, my whole life has been spent training myself to be suspicious of everything people say and do and I think that brought me some success, but it also plays over into the other parts of my life as well. I'm trying to let that go and not be interviewing all the time, but you know, it's tough.

What's the difference between a good guy and a bad guy?

The difference is, a bad guy is somebody who is not sorry for what they did, they're sorry they got caught. A good guy is somebody who even though he makes a bad decision, he can still be a good guy, and when he gets caught, he's truly sorry for what he's done and so he's remorseful, which means society has a place for him to go back into the world and be productive.

Really bad winter as far as weather. You were the subject of a viral Ledger-Enquirer video. You have come to be known as the "Black Ice Sheriff." You got your message across in that video?

Yeah. As funny as it turned out to be later and we had lots of fun talking about it, I think it potentially saved some folks from getting on the road and it saved some folks if they did get on the road. They knew what they were dealing with a lot better. You would not believe how many people after that came up to me and said, "You know, I've heard that my whole life, but I never really understood what it was until you showed us on the video."

And you accomplished that in 30 seconds?

Yeah. It was so funny. And thank God I did not fall when I made that little improvised slide move -- that thing went all up north Alabama. People at the sheriffs' conference were talking about it and we were just joking. But even though we were just joking about it and how funny it was, even they were saying it was very to the point and got the message across on how dangerous it was.

Are you ever off work?

If I go out-of-town on a business trip or vacation, I may get to relax, but my phone is on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

3 a.m. call from this office, you're answering it?

I'm answering it. I may get an opportunity to take a work trip to the Sheriff's Association at Orange Beach, but when I'm at Orange Beach, I'm handling questions and fielding questions 24-7. But I knew that going in. Do I get tired? Yeah, absolutely. Do I fuss about it? Not usually, because I knew it going in. It's one of those deals where if I didn't love the people and love what I do and love my department, I wouldn't have done it to begin with.

The cellphone and the constant contact makes it different than it was 25 years ago?

Absolutely.

If there is something about this job that has caused issues with my personal life, it's that my wife says I don't screen calls. So, if I'm at dinner and the phone rings, instead of calling them back after dinner, I answer the phone.

Because you don't know what it's about?

And she understands the office calls have got to be answered, but her point is a citizen calling at dinner asking me about bonding their loved one out. Her opinion is that can wait long enough for you to eat dinner with your family. My point to it is, what if it's not that? What if that person just had a loved one killed, or what if it's something really major ...

How do y'all work through that?

Very slowly. It is often the topic of conversation especially when I answer the phone and she's giving me those evil looks. I have to ....

But she knew who she was marrying, right?

Absolutely. She is great about it. She just thinks that dinner time with the family is sacred. She thinks that's one hour a day that I should be able to dedicate to listening to my family, listening to my kids telling me about their day, listening to her. And of course the other side of that is if I'm able to be there at all. That's her point. Sometimes you are not even able to be here and when you are, it should be 100 percent of your attention.

What does your wife do?

She works for Aflac. There are times that she gets called, but rarely is it after 5. The average business person that works for TSYS or Aflac or a big corporation, when they go home at 5 p.m., for the most part, they're not worrying about work until the next day. There are those that may run machines that may break down and some have to do something after 5, but for the most part, the average citizen doesn't know what that's like to be tied to this phone 24-7.

This job is a privilege bestowed upon me by the people of this community. And I couldn't have any more respect for that, in my opinion, than what I have. I know it. I live it every day. And I don't want to do anything to take that away or to hurt the community by something I've done.

So, I try every day to earn that trust. I don't think I'm a full-time politician yet, but if I was, politicians should run every day. Not once every four years, not once every two years. They should run and earn the respect every day.

And that's what you're trying to do?

That's right.

BIO

Name: Heath Taylor

Age: 46

Job: Sheriff, Russell County

Education: Woodland Christian Academy, 1986; Chattahoochee Valley Community College, associate degree, 1990; Troy University, bachelor's of arts in criminal justice, 2011.

Family: Wife, Kristi; children, Heather, 13, Tristan, 7; parents, Earl and Thelma Taylor.

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