David Cook: Mercy and jail

David Cook: Mercy and jail

May 7th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Justin Tabor - the Hamilton County deputy sheriff who bought beer for teenagers - still has a job. Thousands of recession-hit people don't, but this guy does.

For the life of me, I can't understand why. Every bartender or waitress for miles would have been fired before the foam settled; buying booze for kids is a crime. Literally.

"A Class A misdemeanor,'' Tennessee Annotated Code law states.

It's double-wrong because the guy had a badge, which means he's supposed to act above the law. Miles, miles above the law.

It's triple-wrong because the four teenagers he drank Bud Light with were in the Explorers, a well-intentioned program that lets kids ride along with cops on patrol.

It's quadruple-wrong because, according to an internal affairs investigation, Tabor shared a bed, but did not have sex, with one of the teenagers, the report found. According to this teenager, there was no sexual contact between her and Tabor until she was 18, the report states.

So why did he get a punishment that seems lighter than the beer he was handing out?

"I wouldn't say it was light," Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said.

Hammond suspended Tabor's pay for 132 hours, put him on probation for a year, removed his duties as a patrol officer and reassigned him as a correctional officer, which means he works in the jail (most of the time without a gun) instead of the streets and loses his patrol car, powers of arrest and a big chunk of pay.

"There is a world of difference between the duties of a correctional officer and a patrolman," the sheriff said. "This guy is not a policeman. He lost all of that."

The 16-page IA report includes interviews with four juveniles and Tabor himself. The teens -- whom Tabor met through the Explorers program - say the officer bought them beer multiple times. (None of it occurred while Tabor was on duty.)

Tabor, whom Hammond said is 25 years old, admitted to sleeping in the same bed with one teen during a two-night trip to a Gatlinburg, Tenn., cabin. The girl's mother was with them on the trip.

"The parents of the juvenile victims do not wish to pursue criminal charges against Deputy Sheriff Tabor concerning this matter," the investigation reads.

Why why why not? Are they afraid of retaliation? They don't want to drag their kids through a public spectacle? But doesn't that mean ...

"You don't have a case if they don't press charges," Hammond said.

Make no mistake: Tabor's the one who blew it in this story. But since being elected, Hammond has portrayed himself as the ethical lawman. He writes about ethics, speaks about ethics, has created a foundation to raise money to provide training in ethics for local law enforcement.

Shouldn't the ethical lawman have quickly fired the unethical deputy?

"There was a degree of mercy in this," he said. "I very highly believe in people being able to feed their families and retain their jobs. ... It is very difficult to just take somebody's job away."

Usually, I'm a sucker for mercy. Aren't you?

Mercy is sweeter than wine when it's applied fairly, evenly, to all. Few things have the power to crack open the human spirit like mercy can. Hammond knows this, too.

But when it's doled out unevenly - when some draw a good hand but others don't - mercy loses its flavor, and starts tasting more like favoritism.

Hammond, a lawman with a preacher's heart, is still a lawman. His job is to enforce the law, not diminish it. If he won't let Jimmy around the corner off the hook when he gets caught buying beer for kids, then he shouldn't have any less punishment for Tabor.

"You might get another sheriff that fires everybody. I like to practice a little more mercy," he said.

In the end, it's your call, Hamilton County residents. Was the sheriff merciful and just, or just unfair?