By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Newly sworn Escambia County Sheriff Heath Jackson says he will bring loads of new ideas with him as he begins his administration of county law enforcement. And while he has already made a few minor changes, he is content to pretty much leave things as they are, at least for now, with one big exception.
“I’m not an eight-to-four sheriff; I like to work,” Jackson said during a January 18 interview with Atmore News. “I’m going to be a working sheriff. I won’t be able to get out there as much as I want to right now because there’s just so much to do.”
The county’s first new sheriff in 16 years said he would lead by example, whether making decisions from his office or directing operations from his vehicle.
“I’m one of those that never asks anybody who works for me to do anything that I won’t do,” he pointed out. “I think it’s important to get out (of the office), and as soon as I get settled in, I plan to work a patrol shift at least once a month. I’m going to patrol eight hours, maybe ten or twelve, if something good is going on.”
Jackson, a veteran investigator who has worked extensively with narcotics cases and homicides, said he understands the importance of teamwork and will try to stress that to the people under his command.
“I don’t want people to lose sight of where I started, what started my career,” he said. “I’ve told the guys and gals of this agency that I’m not trying to get out here and show them how to do their job, I’m out here to assist them and help them. We’re short-handed, even when we’re at full staff, and there’s no reason I can’t get out and help my people.
“I hope the people who work with me will bring new ideas to the table. I’m not here because I’m the smartest man; I’m here because I got the most votes.”
As a gung-ho narcotics officer in Atmore, Jackson earned the nickname “Jump-out Jackson” for his propensity to jump from a not-quite-stopped vehicle to chase down a suspect.
“I think if I had to chase somebody down, I could still do it,” he smiled. “Back when I worked in Atmore, if I started chasing them, I was going to catch them, no matter how far they ran. Sometimes they would get tired and just sit down and wait for me to catch up with them and arrest them.”
Among the changes he has made since officially becoming sheriff on January 15, are to the agency’s command staff. Former Chief Deputy Mike Lambert, who was Jackson’s opponent in the race for sheriff, left of his own volition, as did former Jail Warden James Ward and an unnamed captain.
“Bill Blair is going to be my number-two, acting in the capacity of a captain,” Jackson explained. “He has the power of a chief deputy — if I’m not here or if he’s speaking, he is speaking as the sheriff. I didn’t want to replace the chief deputy slot because I didn’t feel this agency was big enough to have those kind of salaries.
“We had a captain who left and went with another agency, too, and we didn’t replace him, either. I’ve never been a top-heavy chain of command type guy. My plan is to take the chief deputy’s and captain’s salaries and create two or three extra patrol officers so we can put more people out there on the street. I don’t need a lot of people here in the office; I need people out there getting the job done.”
Richard Hetrick, a retired Alabama Department of Corrections captain, has been hired to take over as the county jail’s administrator, and as such will be holding the office’s number-three position.
“I brought a new warden in,” said Jackson. “The previous warden did a good job and was a hard worker, but he took a job at another facility, so I brought in Richard Hetrick. He’s a very knowledgeable guy and he’s going to be running our jail operations. Richard’s going to run the jail; Bill’s going to run the sheriff’s side.”
The veteran lawman also vowed that an individual’s political affiliation would not be held against him or her.
“I want people to know that no matter who they supported in the election, politics is over,” he asserted. “If anybody needs anything, it doesn’t matter what side of the fence you were on. I’m your sheriff and I’m going to do anything in the world I can to help you.”
The 38-year-old sheriff, who has earned “street credit” among many of the criminals he has arrested over the years, plans to create a sheriff’s office that combines the best of outgoing Sheriff Grover Smith, who served six terms, with ideas he picked up while working with Escambia County (Fla.) Sheriff David Morgan and Santa Rosa County (Fla.) Sheriff Bob Jones.
“There are some things that have to change,” he agreed without elaboration. “A lot of the things that are ‘my plans’ are things that I’ve seen done at other places. They’re not my ideas, not something that I laid in bed and thought about and decided to do; they’re things that I’ve seen work.
“I don’t want to re-invent the wheel; I’m here to put some grease on it.”
A second article on Sheriff Jackson will run in next week’s Atmore News.