David Cook: Posse member seeks spirit of the law

David Cook: Posse member seeks spirit of the law

September 7th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

After filling out an application, passing a background check, smiling for the official photograph (such a rookie move: I should have scowled), I finally was granted membership into the Hamilton County Posse.

My official posse card arrived in the mail earlier this summer. I carry it in my wallet, next to my library card. Looks great, except for one thing.

My posse card identifies me as Dick.

Dick Cook, not David Cook. (Talk about a Freudian slip.)

Man, there goes my entire street cred, which was already about as thin as Kate Moss. Regardless -- Dick, David or Dudley-Do-Right - I now join more than 70 other county citizens in an organization given power by an 1858 Tennessee law to stop "affrays, riots, routs, unlawful assemblies, insurrections or other breaches of peace."

I volunteer to handle all affrays and routs.

The county posse was reinstituted under Sheriff Jim Hammond, which means something about this man.

On Thursday, the sheriff, wearing a white shirt, red tie and houndstooth blazer, came to the Times Free Press newsroom to meet with editors, editorial writers, reporters and posse-columnists. Coming to the newspaper was his idea. That means something, too.

The recent narrative for our county sheriff has been less than favorable.

He's been accused of favoritism and nepotism, hiring his son as webmaster, making calls on behalf of a former employee who'd been arrested, commissioning special deputies and posses.

He's had budget issues: Spending more than he's budgeted and, most recently, not providing the full amount of school resource officers the County Commission approved for him to use in schools.

"My budget is woefully underfunded," he said Thursday.

In each case, Hammond defended himself. He's given a budget to manage (how he does so is up to him, he said) and rising food and gas prices, a shortage of federal prisoners (paid for with extra federal dollars to the sheriff's office) and plenty of overtime pay make him reroute funding from one area to another, he said.

I'd wage that happens in budgets all across the county. But not all budgets are in the hands of democratically elected leaders either.

Like a fly on a horse, something else is nagging at me about this: Why does one of the most needed programs in the county - a well-trained SRO officer in all schools - have to suffer?

He spoke about the starving budget - and I can't help but think it would increase if he managed it a bit better -- but also about his own Sheriff's Foundation, which seeks to raise more than $1 million to increase three things in law enforcement: "Ethics, character building and leadership," he said.

I asked him about Lonnie Hood, the former deputy who had served time for a felony offense. In December 2011, Hood was arrested for disorderly conduct and Hammond made calls to the jail and magistrate on his behalf.

"I'd do it as much for a stranger as for Lonnie Hood as for you if you called me," he said.

Near the end of the editorial board meeting Thursday, he told a hypothetical story: A man is caught speeding in the middle of the night down a long and deserted road. No alcohol, no recklessness or crime beyond speeding. Hammond said he'd rather an officer warn the man, telling him to slow down, instead of writing a ticket.

"I'd rather follow the spirit of the law," he said.

I like that. To me, that is the meaning of Hammond. Following the spirit, he sometimes crosses a line to do what he thinks is right. But it's a dangerous slope if you're not always right but never in doubt. Truly believing something is right doesn't make it right.

And if he can find ways to follow both the spirit - and letter - of the law, his budget problems would certainly decrease, which means more SROs and fewer routs.