Mike Jolley is 60, and he says he will run for a seventh term as Harris County sheriff next year.
That's not all Jolley says. Whether he's talking politics, law enforcement or riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle across the country and back, he says pretty much what he's thinking. And he doesn't apologize for it.
Recently, Jolley sat down in his Harris County office with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams. He was laugh-out-loud funny at times and blunt at others.
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.
How did you end up becoming the sheriff of Harris County? Obviously you got elected.
My last tour I was in Desert Storm-Desert Shield, and before I left I did some substitute teaching. I was thinking about retirement and thinking about being a substitute teacher in Harris County because I already lived here. I love kids and I love teaching, so I thought about being a teacher because I already had my master's degree.
So, while doing that, I got close to a lot of the teachers and to a lot of the kids in the school. When I got deployed to Desert Storm-Desert Shield, a lot of the Harris County classrooms took me on as a project. They wrote me letters during that eight to nine months I was over there.
You were in Iraq, right?
I was in Iraq for that period of time with the 82nd Airborne, 18th Airborne Division. I wrote them back, and when I came back I said, "I have to do something for the county that I really fell in love with." So, I came and saw the sheriff who was here at the time and said, "Look, I'm interested in law enforcement. As you know, I'm a chief warrant officer with the Army CID (Criminal Investigation Division). I'd like to have a job and work in a field that I know about." And he said, "I'm not interested in hiring any ex-military," basically. And a lot of my friends said, "Why don't you just run for the job?"
Who was the sheriff?
John Adams. Great guy. John and I are good friends now.
But he wouldn't give you a job?
He didn't hire me. He's told me since then that in retrospect he probably should have hired me. So, I ran and by the grace of God I won, and ever since then I've been re-elected either unopposed or, when opposed, I received about the same number of votes. I ran twice as a Democrat and four times as a Republican, and I seem to get the same amount of votes each time.
This is not your home, right?
No. I'm from south Georgia originally, and my wife is from Columbus.
In a county such as Harris County, how difficult is it for somebody who is an outsider to come in and beat a sitting sheriff?
The first time I ran I was told by a lot of people, "Look, you don't have a snowball's chance. You're not from there, it's a rural county, you're not in the clique." And with three people on the ballot, I got about 54 percent of the vote, which was pretty awesome.
That's not a bad lick.
No, not a bad lick. However, I think at that time the county was ready for a change. I had the credentials, obviously. I had been a senior investigator with the Army for 18 years, MP for two years, I had my master's degree in police administration, and I had run people before because I ran an office within the Army CID. So, it wasn't the fact that I couldn't do the job. So the people were prepared for a change at that point.
Talk about change. How has Harris County changed in the 23 years you've been sheriff?
When I first took office, we were in the old jail, which was up in the city of Hamilton. I had about 21 on staff counting jailers and deputies. Now, I've got almost 80. With the new jail and actually with the new SPLOST we just passed, I'll be adding another 90-something beds within the next couple of years. We probably had almost 20,000 citizens when I took office. Now, we've got about 40,000. You should know more than most that everybody in Columbus is moving to Harris County. We are no longer the tail that wags the dog. Harris County is a force. We are where people want to be.
Why is that?
Well, our schools, No. 1, are leading the state of Georgia. Our crime rate is the lowest in the state of Georgia, per capita, and we still have a rural atmosphere. We do things and put a personal touch on it. We still have that Mayberry feel.
It's funny you should say Mayberry. I walked by a couple of pictures of Barney and Andy when I came down the hall toward your office.
We look at them and think, "That's the way we want to be." As you look around my office, I have a lot of John Wayne stuff. That's the touch we want to give our citizens. We want people to know we do what we say and we mean what we say. And if we call somebody and tell them we'll be there, we'll be there. And if they call us and ask us to come, we're coming.
Is Harris County a throwback to the way things were 40-50 years ago?
I hope so. I hope we stay that way.
You don't want to see Columbus up here?
No, and I don't think the people who move up here want to bring Columbus with them. Of course, that's a little problem we may have. People move up here and get two acres and they want to turn their dog loose and zero in their rifle and ride their four wheeler. But, unfortunately, you can't do that on two acres.
You've got to have a little bit more than two acres. So, we get calls of four wheelers on property and dogs loose. We don't have a leash law on most of the property out here, so we do have our animal calls and we do have weapons being fired and that kind of stuff. But we handle that. We talk to people and we talk to people like they are human beings.
I'm not saying Columbus, LaGrange and other cities don't do that, but their call volume is so high that they don't have the time to spend with their citizens that we do.
How is law enforcement different in Harris County than it is in Muscogee County?
Well, I still believe in the community policing, that we work and live in the same area. So, we want to treat our citizens not just like we work for them, but we live with them also. We try to zone it out to where we know the people. We go to our businesses when they close (for the day). We want to make sure our businesses get closed properly and they are not burglarized and robbed.
We still answer alarm calls and don't charge the people for it yet -- don't want to do that if don't we have to. When people leave for vacation they call here and say, "Look, I'm going to be gone from my house for a week. Can y'all check our home?" We still go by and check houses. That's what we're here for -- the personal touch.
What's the biggest challenge you face now as sheriff?
Staffing, I would say. I want to get the right people. I want to keep the right people. But the salaries I have to work with sometimes is not quite where it should be.
Do you pay more than Muscogee, Russell or Lee counties?
No. I'm way below their pay scale. What I have to offer is a quality of job satisfaction. They are able to come out here and work. They just don't go to call, to call, to call. When they come out here and work, they get the feel like they're really doing police work, which is what they are looking for.
So, Columbus will train them up. I get a lot of good deputies that come from Columbus and they are awesome law enforcement officers. I get some from LaGrange. I get some from all over that want to come here and work because I have a good chain of command that allows them to do their job without micro management.
The Muscogee County Sheriff's office and their budget issues have been in the news in Columbus a lot lately. Do you face some of the same budget issues here?
I don't face the same ones they have because me and the people who handle my budget -- which is the board of commissioners -- we have a little bit better relationship. My board of commissioners -- I have five of them -- I can call them or e-mail them and they will actually come over to my office and we can sit down and talk about my budget and work through the issues a little bit better probably than what maybe Sheriff Darr can do with his city council.
So, you don't have some of the acrimony you see down there?
Do you ever talk to (Muscogee County) Sheriff (John) Darr about it?
I do. And of course, I try to help Sheriff Darr out all I can and give him some words of advice since I've been here a little longer than him. And he calls me periodically and asks me questions and I'm more than willing to go down and help him out any way I can.
What do you think about the situation he's in now?
I think he's getting a raw deal on some of it. I understand they've got issues with the city council and the mayor, and I know she's got her own problems. I like the mayor. She's a sweet person, I'm sure. Since I don't have to deal with her on those issues, I don't see the side of her that maybe they do.
I don't want to get negative on her. I don't think she's as pro-police as most people think she may be. But I hope they work it out. Because in the scheme of things, the real loser is the citizens if they don't work it out. That's going to be the real losing side of it, the citizens.
You have a very interesting perspective on that. Obviously, you're watching it from the top of a mountain looking down at it.
All of them are newcomers to politics. I've been doing this 23 years. I've been a six-term sheriff, so I've seen them come and go. I know his side of it. I know he's got to run a jail. I know he's got to run his staff. And I know her side of it. She's got to run an overall budget and she's not a jail person. And if she truly wants the jail to be run efficiently, then she's got to go to the people who do it, and that's the sheriff's office.
How hard is it to be responsible for operating a jail? Toughest part of your job?
Yes, because you are responsible whether you've got 100 people in jail or if you've got 1,100 people in jail. You are responsible for their life, their health, their mental health, them getting up in the morning, their eating -- you are responsible for them. And by law -- state and federal law -- you've got to take care of them. And if you don't, you are going to get sued. And that's where the big money is at. I don't want to say our judges this day and time are getting liberal because I love all of my judges.
You've got seven of them, right?
I've got seven of them; they all come here. But the judges are getting liberal and when there is a jury of 12, they are really getting liberal, especially down in Columbus. So, that's why I love Harris County. My jury of 12 out here are still a little bit more conservative.
When you say conservative, what do you mean?
Common sense. They will think with a little bit more common sense.
You just offended a lot of Columbus right there.
I call it like I see it. But Columbus (people) will even say that.
You're kind of a reflection of this community in many ways, aren't you?
At least 80 percent of them -- or that's what the votes say. There is probably 20 percent who don't think like me, but everybody wants good law enforcement.
You grew up in Pelham, Ga., right?
Meigs, Ga., which is 5 miles from Pelham.
You said your father passed away when you were fairly young.
I was 9. The village raised me. They say it takes a village to raise an idiot. I had neighbors who would call my mother and say, "I saw your son doing this," or "Your son was doing that," and my mom would say, "Did you call his hand? Did you stop him? Thanks for calling me." Back in the day, back when I was young, everybody raised your child. If you were doing something wrong you got called on it and you parents got called.
I guess you're up for re-election next year?
Are you going to run?
Sure. I love my job.
So, you're not anywhere near retiring?
I'm not saying I'm not near retiring, but I'm not retiring yet.
You've got another four-year term in you?
I've got another four-year term if I'm elected. And every term is my first term. I know I've been here six -- I know I'm a senior sheriff working on 23-24 years -- but every year is the first year. You can't look at it like this is not mine forever.
How did your military career help prepare you to do this job?
Mission first. You have a mission, you focus on that mission, and you accomplish that mission. You don't stop until you get it done.
You've kind of taken that philosophy up here, right?
Yes, and get smart people around you. You don't have to be half as smart as you look if you have smart people around you. I've got a good chief deputy. I've got a good road captain.
Who is your chief deputy?
Neil Adams. And I've got a great jail administrator, Maj. Christie Webb. I was gone for 21 days on Scott's Miracle Ride. This place didn't miss a beat.
Let's talk about that. You just got back from touching all of the 48 lower states with Scott Ressmeyer.
For the sixth year.
What made you want to get on a motorcycle and loop the country?
Well, Scott did it the first year by himself. And of course I have known Scott for many years. And I told him, "Scott, that was crazy to go somewhere like that by yourself. Anything could happen. You could have a wreck, your bike could go down." To go somewhere by yourself is a dangerous thing, especially when you're not a police officer. I said, "That's crazy. But if you want to do it again, I'd love to do it with you. I ride bikes and I'd love to see all 48 states. That would be a bucket list type thing."
What has been the best part of doing that the last six years?
I watch a lot of news and I keep up with a lot of stuff. And what I found out riding all 48 states and meeting people is there's not all negative out there. There's a lot of great people in America. I don't care how much money you have. You can be rich or poor, black or white, male or female, pretty or ugly, it don't really matter. There's good people out there.
I don't think America's better days are behind us. I think there is still good days for America out there. The first year we rode, we saw a lot of things for sale alongside of the roads. It was hard times six years ago. There were a lot of trucks, a lot of tractors, just a lot of things alongside of the road in front of houses for sale. You could kind of tell it was hard times out there.
And over the six years that I have ridden, there's not as much stuff for sale, so things must be getting a little better.
When you do this, do y'all become ambassadors for Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley?
Yeah, and people will say, "Where are you from?" and we have to say "Columbus," and they say, "Fort Benning." Everybody has heard of Fort Benning. If you say Harris County, no one has heard of Harris County, unless they say Texas.
Because Houston is Harris County.
Yeah, right, but I carry patches of Harris County and we swap them with other law enforcement officers, and other law enforcement officers from other counties, other states, other cities. We stay in touch with them and try to switch patches and start a board.
I imagine y'all are a pretty interesting lot, doing this last ride with 20 something of y'all riding in with dusters.
We do the dusters every year.
But I imagine y'all are an interesting group when y'all roll into a gas station or a mom and pop store.
They look at us like -- especially when Waco got hit -- like, "Oh my God, what have we got coming in here." And we tell them we're not the bad guys, and we have the badges on our dusters so they think "What's happening here?" We have toys for the kids. We always give the toys out at gas stations and at lunches.
While y'all were on this ride, you had the shootout at Twin Peaks in Waco with two warring bike gangs.
Did that cause y'all some issues?
When we would go into the hotels, people would look at us and we would say we weren't from Waco and that would kind of break the ice and we'd laugh and cut up about it a little bit. You've just got to talk to people. The lack of communication is always a frightful thing. If you communicate with people, talk to people, it always loosens them up.
What has Scott Ressmeyer meant to this community?
Scott is an ambassador for goodwill. He's all about goodwill. You never see him without a smile. You never see him without wanting to help, whether it's for Children's Miracle Network, the blind, breast cancer awareness, a kid at the hospital that needs a computer. We'll collect money and give him a computer.
Is that what it was about to you, helping these kids?
It's what it is all about. It's not about getting a group of guys together. I can get a group of guys together. Scott is a well-known guy and has a couple of restaurants. When you meet with Scott you're going to eat some barbecue and get out.
I'm kind of well-known, I guess you would say. If I call some people up and say, "Let's get together for supper," I can get a group of guys up to eat supper, but it's about the kids. It's always been about the kids for me. That's why I'm the sheriff. I ain't a sheriff because I need the money. I'm retired Army. I've got rental property, my wife works.
You're doing pretty good up here in Harris County, right?
Yes. I'm not doing this for the money. I'm doing this for the kids, for the citizens. I don't want to get mushy, but it's always been about the kids for me.
Does that come from sort of how you were raised, the situations?
Well, you know, maybe. I was raised to be a servant. My mother always taught me if you're going to do something, do it right.
My grandfather was a pretty big influence in my life. He lived next door to us. He taught me if you do something you like you never have to work. And really, for 43 years I've never had to work.
If you hadn't gone into law enforcement what would you have done?
Bootlegger? I don't know. I worked on the farm but I never did like it. That's what I did, I grew up working on a farm. We had 600 acres of watermelons my last year at home.
600 acres of watermelons?
Yeah. We had a big farm. I don't even let my children chew watermelon chewing gum. I hate watermelon.
So, you don't buy watermelon when they're selling it on the side of the road?
No. We had 40 acres of tobacco, so I don't smoke. We had cotton and I don't like wearing cotton underwear. I just didn't like the farm even though I worked on it. My wife cuts the grass. I don't like cutting grass. I don't like doing anything outside, hardly.
When you started here nearly 24 years ago, there were 20,000 people and this was a much more rural place than it is today. What does Harris County look like 20 years from now?
I'm afraid to say, it's going to grow, which if it's controlled growth -- of course that's up to my commissioners, I understand that -- I hope they can control the growth. We've got Exit 19, which is out there, it's called The Grove and is going to be a big community coming up. I believe that is going to be controlled. I know on 27 coming north out of Columbus is a community that wants to come up there.
Yeah. Right where you come across the county line there's an area that wants to grow there. I hope they control that. You can't stop growth. It's like holding an ice cube in your hand and saying it won't melt. It's going to melt.
So, growth is going to come. I know it's coming out here because it's the place to be. Anybody you talk to in Columbus -- I don't blame them -- they want to get out of Columbus.
... I love going down to Columbus because it's a good place to go eat. You can't turn around without finding a place to eat. We go to the movies, we go out to eat, and we have a lot of good friends that live in Columbus. But, we still don't lock our doors up here. I still leave the keys in my car.
Somebody is going to steal your car next week, you know that?
If they do, they do. If somebody takes my car they need it worse than me. That's the way I look at it. I'll get it back. If they need it that bad just come and borrow it.
You know the growth is coming. You mentioned Exit 19, and Exit 19 right now, I've heard people say in 10 years that will be the next Columbus Park Crossing.
No doubt. It will be. They'll incorporate that area no doubt. That will be in the city. I've already talked to some of the people that build in Columbus who live out here. You realize that.
I know that. I'm well aware of that.
They are going to build there. They are going to open up a Burger King. They are going to open up a McDonald's. They are going to put up an IHOP. And once you start building those things, it's coming. We are going to have a Walmart, there's no doubt. Right now we have what we call "Harris County Walmart" -- Dollar General.
You don't have large apartment complexes.
No, we don't, which is good and bad. When you have large apartment complexes, you bring in an element of people. And I may or may not get in trouble for this, but I am who I am -- when you get in that apartment complex and it's rented out, then you're fine. But when it's no longer rented and then you have to rent to government housing, then that brings in an element of people that brings in the criminal element sometimes. And I hate to say that because the people who live there are good people. They are great people. And we have government housing in Harris County already.
When you talk about government housing, you're talking about subsidized housing.
Subsidized housing. They are great people. The mothers that are trying to raise their kids there are the young women who are single families, are great mothers and their kids are great kids. But some of the people who hang around, who don't live there, who are predators that we can't run off because the law won't allow us to run them off, are leaches. And that's the problem that Columbus has with some of their subdivisions.
What do the people of Columbus think they know but don't know about Harris County?
They think that we're just a bunch of good old rednecks up here. And that's what I want them to keep thinking because we won't grow quite as quick. This is a well-kept secret, it really is, and I'm afraid this article might get the secret out.
You've got two urban areas kind of sandwiching you -- Columbus and LaGrange. And you also have an interstate cutting right through the county that connects Atlanta to the beaches. Do you face unique challenges because of those situations?
I don't right now because I have a great working relationship with the chief of police and sheriffs of Muscogee County and Troup County. My biggest fear would be that Columbus politics changes to a point to where we don't have a close relationship and that interfered with the way we are able to interact. Right now, if I have a high-speed chase that starts in Harris County, we go into Columbus and Columbus will assist us. If their politics changes to the point to where they say, "Look, we're not going to assist," there's no need for me to chase them down there.
So, you would just stop at the county line and let them go?
That's about all I can do. All of the burglaries that happen here -- not all of them but about 99 percent of them -- are people from Columbus. It's not my local people burglarizing houses. It's Columbus people coming up here burglarizing houses.
So, when we find out who it is -- and we solve about 60 percent of our burglaries -- we go to Columbus and get them, and Columbus will come out and help us. If that politics changes to where they say they don't have time or whatever the case may be, that's going to hurt us.
Why do you mean when you say politics changes -- personnel changes or the political will to work with you?
When politics changes, political will changes. In other words, if the mayor and council members put a new chief of police in and that chief of police says, "We don't have time to deal with Harris County problems, we're dealing with our own problems." And they don't realize that my problems are their problems. Criminals don't stop at county lines. Criminals may break in my homes here and if I solve four or five burglaries here, I solve 30-40 of y'all's. That's how y'all solve y'all's burglaries. I don't want to hurt (Columbus Police Chief) Ricky (Boren)'s feelings. His people solve their burglaries when we solve them. They confess to mine and then show us 10 or 15 they hit down there, also. That's how they solve their burglaries. They don't have time to work burglaries. All they do is take reports. I'm just being honest. I call Ricky all of the time and tell him that. I say, "Ricky, I just solved your burglaries for you." When he retires he's going to be working for me.
I believe one of the other Miracle Riders this year was your son, Cody?
What was it like to be able to do this experience with Cody?
I have a great relationship with both of my boys, but Cody is pretty unique to me. He works for the DA's office here in Harris County. He used to work in Columbus and then they transferred him here. I see him every day almost, and Cody wants to be the sheriff here one day. He's got a degree in criminal justice, a four-year degree, and a degree in math. He was going to be a teacher at one time but couldn't deal with the parents.
He told me if I keep running he's going to run against me. He would be first on the ballot and they might vote for him by accident. Cody is a neat young man. He's local. He went to school here since first grade, so he's considered a local even though I'm not. He's known out here by everybody. He knows more people out here than I do. He's a young Christian boy. I say a young boy; he's 31.
How old were you when you got elected sheriff?
So, you've got one more term. He'll be 35-36.
Yeah, and if he keeps his nose clean I might support him. If he ain't right for the county, I won't support him. It was a unique ride. I didn't room with him. I roomed with Tim Wynn.
You didn't do what (retired Columbus Police officer) Rick Stinson did and buy a new Harley in Vegas did you?
I did not. I bought one last year when I came back from the Breast Cancer Awareness Ride Tim and I rode. Not that I needed to, but I did.
I saw Rick's post that he had come out of Vegas with a new Harley.
I don't see how when your wife has a birthday you get a Harley. He must be a heck of a man. I had to buy a house at the beach just so I could go on these rides.
But, Cody is a good young man. I'm proud of both of my boys. I wish they hadn't of gotten into law enforcement like I did. I really pushed them to go into other things. I wanted my oldest son to go into the military and he chose not to do that. Not he regrets it and wish he had of. He's 36 and could retire in two years. Cody got a baseball scholarship and played two years at a junior college (Andrew College) and then had two more years in Kentucky he could have went to, but I had a motorcycle wreck several years back. He was supposed to go to Kentucky that summer that I had my wreck and after I had my wreck he said, "I'm not leaving my Dad."
How bad was the wreck?
I broke my neck and I broke my fourth, fifth and sixth vertebra, my collarbone, my scapula and this hand.
And you still ride.
And I still ride. I have pins and screws in the back of my neck.
So, you've got some arthritis from that.
It's a little tight once in a while. But it's all good. If you ever go up to the NICU, if you ever go up and see the kids in the hospital, you've got to do something. You can't just sit back. You can't.
Name: Mike Jolley
Job: Sheriff, Harris County; retired U.S. Army chief warrant officer, Army Criminal Investigations
Education: Started at Pelham High School, Pelham, Ga., graduated from Ravenwood Academy, Meigs, Ga., 1972; attended Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Tifton, Ga.; University of Maryland, associate degree in criminal justice, 1976; Troy State University, bachelor’s degree in criminal police investigation, 1979; Troy State University, master’s degree in police administration, 1980; Auburn University, three years toward doctoral degree.
Family: Wife, Cindy, married 34 years, retired from Synovus, now works at Callaway Gardens as director of human resources; two sons, Joshua Michael and Cody; and six grandchildren.