CLEVELAND, Tenn. — The challenger in the Bradley County sheriff's race has won the endorsement of Cleveland Police Chief Mark Gibson.
At a rally Saturday night, Gibson said he normally stays out of politics, but "this time is different, and I think it's time we stand up."
Gibson said he had worked with Steve Lawson for many years and knew him as a man of integrity and competence.
"We need a leader that is beyond reproach, a leader that is in service to the citizens, not himself," he said. Gibson also said supporters of current Sheriff Eric Watson, who is running for re-election, found out about the pending endorsement and called city of Cleveland officials "to get me in trouble or prevent that endorsement coming out."
"I take great offense to that. That's not taking the high road, in my opinion," he said, referring to Watson's disavowal of negative campaigning.
Watson did not respond to a request for comment Saturday evening.
Former chief deputy Brian Smith, who is supporting Lawson along with former sheriffs Jim Ruth, Tim Gobble, Dan Gilley and Robert Lawson, introduced Gibson, but only after he called out Watson over what he called an attack on someone close to him.
Smith said he had ignored "negative attacks put out by the Watson campaign" until early last week, "when my relationship with the woman I love very much was put in question."
"Our relationship was demeaned and put in a negative light, and that hurt deeply," Smith said.
"Eric, if you want to discuss questionable relationships, let's examine the many inappropriate texts, of which I have copies, between you and a female inmate. We have serious issues in this sheriff race, and character is one of them. Eric, I would suggest that you focus on the issues and keep innocent people out of the mudslinging."
The Times Free Press reported in June 2016 on those communications after obtaining a series of Facebook messages between Watson and the woman that began late in 2014. The Times Free Press withheld her name to protect her privacy.
An early exchange includes a photo of the woman in a scanty red brassiere and a reply from Watson asking whether she needed to be warmed up. In January 2015, he told her they should "hang out" and she said she would take off work to go on a trip with him.
The exchanges were ongoing when she was arrested in July 2015 on felony robbery charges. The Times Free Press obtained court documents and interviewed judges for a story alleging Watson used his position to get her felony bond lowered so she could get out of jail.
Gibson has had his own issues with how the Bradley County Sheriff's Office runs the county jail.
Although state law says the jail must accept any arrestee and provide medical care if needed, a "blue feud" broke out last year after city officers claimed jail personnel refused people to get out of paying doctor bills.
In March 2017, jail officials refused to accept two heavily intoxicated men arrested by Cleveland and said they needed hospital treatment. The city officers drove the two to the local hospital and "unarrested" them. In revenge, some city officers set out to arrest everyone they could and stack them up to await booking.
A summit between Gibson and Smith was supposed to resolve that issue, but two other refusals in the same month ended with a homicide and the release of man with a felony burglary conviction.
Thomas Creek Jr. was arrested March 14 and refused at the jail after complaining of cellulitis in his legs. He went to the hospital by ambulance but walked out the same evening and disappeared. He was found shot to death on March 23.
His mother, Kitty Creek, told the Times Free Press in April 2017 her son knew that complaining he was sick was a get-out-of-jail-free card.
"What I don't understand is this was the second or third time the jail refused him," she said. "They knew he would leave the hospital, he left the last time. Why didn't they leave an officer with him?"
The burglar, Jardarius Hudgins, was arrested March 28 on a charge of violating probation. Jail officials saw a partly healed cut on his arm and wouldn't let him in, even though the Cleveland police officer cited state law and tried to show a copy of an attorney general's opinion requiring his admission.
All the frustrated city officers could do was uncuff Hudgins right in the jail sally port — the secure entry to the jail — and watch him disappear into the night.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at email@example.com or 423-757-6416.