The candidates for Hamilton County Sheriff offer our county a wealth of policing experience.
The race also offers our county the opportunity to elect a younger and more driven sheriff.
Victor Miller is 34 and the Homicide Unit supervisor for the Chattanooga Police Department. Since he took over the homicide department, the clearance rate for solved crimes has climbed from 40 percent to 90 percent, he says.
Incumbent Sheriff Jim Hammond is 74 and was elected sheriff a decade ago. Before that, he was Hamilton County's chief deputy from 1995 until 2006. In between sheriff's department jobs he served a stint as a national and international law enforcement training instructor.
Energy and experience will be important in this race, because the sheriff's office faces bigger and more complicated issues than ever before.
School safety and the need for school resource officers in all of the county schools present a huge challenge, and jail overcrowding is causing our county's public safety costs and liabilities to soar.
Miller credits his homicide department's improving clearance rate to proactive police work that includes the use of data and intelligence, as well as starting — at no cost — a homicide hotline that guarantees information will be kept confidential.
When the community sees arrests happening, it develops trust that law enforcement helps keep the community safe, says Miller, a big advocate of community policing. He also has been a patrol officer, working most often in East Lake and Alton Park, as well as being the Chattanooga Police Department spokesman.
Miller wants to be proactive as sheriff, too. He wants to have SROs in every school, not just for safety but also as student mentors and to build police trust with young people.
Hammond now plans to hire and train seven, funded by the school system, but he says it will be February or March before they can actually get into the schools. The sheriff says he could hire and train as many as 15 if more funding can be obtained from the county government, but even with full funding for all schools, Hammond says getting SROs in every school is a years-long project.
That's because SROs, like SWAT team members, must go through lots of checks and training, he says. Not just anyone is right for a law enforcement job — and especially not just anyone can be a school resource officer.
This makes us question why Hammond also says that arming school administrators or teachers — with proper training — may be the cheapest solution. "I'll not take anything off table, even arming teachers," he told a Times Free Press editorial board.
Miller's not so sure.
"It might be the cheapest solution, but we need to work on the best solution," he says. "Teachers told me they don't want to be armed and parents didn't want teachers armed."
To find the best solution — and to better recruit new officers for the undermanned sheriff's department and jail — Miller would look for better efficiencies in the department budget, which he would make more transparent and stay within.
As for the jail problems, Miller says the county should consider ending its contract with Core Civic when it runs out in 2020. Some of the Core Civic employees would likely be happy to work for the county, and there are "a lot of issues at Silverdale and more lawsuits filed" than there should be.
Hammond says it's currently less expensive for Core Civic to operate Silverdale, "but there may come a time when the county can do it cheaper." He acknowledges that moving the jail to Silverdale will take five years. Meanwhile, 40 percent of what he calls the jail's "frequent flyers" have mental health issues and most jail prisoners are awaiting trial but can't make bond.
Miller says prevention is cheaper than retention. Our county needs a matrix to help magistrates reevaluate bonding habits, as well as a "re-entry specialist to guide those leaving jail to find jobs so they won't return. At Silverdale, he'd like to see jobs skills programs.
Hammond has done a good job as sheriff, but if he is elected again, he'll be 78 at the end of his term.
Victor Miller is the right choice for a new age of policing in Hamilton County.