Local News

June 9, 2013

The law’s the law

Veteran leader Scott Chitwood reflects on 20-plus years as sheriff of Whitfield County

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about “The Class of ’93,” three Whitfield County officials who were first elected in 1992 and have since been re-elected five times — Coroner Bobbie Dixon (the story appeared April 8), Sheriff Scott Chitwood and Tax Commissioner Danny Sane.

 

When Scott Chitwood was elected sheriff of Whitfield County in the fall of 1992, he didn’t know he was on his way to becoming the longest-serving sheriff in county history.

Especially when he had to investigate a murder on his first day in office (Jan. 1, 1993) and then had to sleep at the jail a couple of nights when a blizzard hit in mid-March 1993.

“It put us to the test, that’s for sure,” Chitwood says with a smile now in his sixth term in office, breaking the previous mark of 14 years set by Sheriff Louie Vining from 1939 to 1952.

“I never envisioned that we would be here this long,” Chitwood admits. “I guess I didn’t look into the future that far in advance. I did think we had a good opportunity to stay here for several terms, and I’m very proud of the administration that we put together in the beginning.”

He calls the five re-endorsements by voters “an honor” and believes it speaks well of the people in the department as a whole, many of whom have been serving with the sheriff from the very beginning.

“My employees can make me or break me,” Chitwood says, “so I have my yearly review every four years. I’m either going to get rehired or I’m fixing to get fired — that’s what it boils down to. I work for the people, so for the majority of the voters to re-elect us to a sixth term is very satisfying, very rewarding because we’re pleasing the majority of the public out there.”

The early years

Chitwood didn’t grow up playing cops and robbers, or at least he didn’t plan on a law enforcement career as a child.

He was born in Fort Pierce, Fla., in the 1950s, where his father, W.B. “Mooney” Chitwood, was in the carpet business. When Scott was 3, his parents moved to Dalton, and he’s lived here ever since, graduating from Dalton High School in 1973 and Dalton Junior College in 1975.

At that point, fate entered the picture.

You have to wonder what career path young Scott might have taken, if not for a decision by his father in the mid-1970s to open a bonding company here.

“Of course, my dad knew Sheriff Jerry Mauldin (who served from 1965 to 1976), so when I hadn’t really decided what I wanted to do for a career, he said, ‘Why don’t you go down to see the sheriff and he might hire you?’ So I went down there and he did.”

Back then, Chitwood says, newcomers started on dispatch for a very short period, “then you pretty well immediately went to the road. I was on the road as a regular deputy, a road officer, and then was promoted to investigations. Then-Deputy Rick Swiney (now Capt. Swiney currently serving) and I worked many, many cases as partners on the night shift.”

Chitwood continued to serve under newly elected Sheriff Jack Davis when Davis came into office in 1977, but then he took a break to work at WestPoint Pepperell for a few years before returning to law enforcement as chief deputy under Sheriff W.G. Tallent in 1989. Three years later, he decided to run for the office himself when Tallent decided not to seek another term.

“Mr. Tallent was a very good man,” Chitwood says. “But when I got elected as a younger man, I guess one of my selling points was I just felt like as a young professional that we could bring forth that structure, professionalism, management and organization that to some degree might have been lacking with an older gentleman.”

Voters liked that message and elected Chitwood, who says he just missed winning the primary outright over three other opponents, then went into a runoff with the runner-up and was fortunate enough to win.

“When we came in and were able to provide the department with some basic improvements, morale went straight out the roof,” the sheriff says. “I think the employees hopefully accepted us that we were here for improvement — we were here to make things better for them and to work together. We were young and had a young department so I wasn’t really asking the employees to do something that we ourselves as administrators had not done or couldn’t do ourselves.”

A loyal staff

He and Swiney are the only two remaining officers who have worked at all three of the most recent county jails.

“We worked together at the old old jail on South Hamilton Street, then we worked at the old jail on Waugh Street, and now we’ve moved here,” Chitwood says, looking around the modern and spacious facility at 805 Professional Blvd. that was completed with SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) funds in 2003.

The sheriff has been friends with Swiney for more than 50 years — literally since the two were in first grade at Morris Street School. “We used to ride to lunch when we got to go off campus for lunch at Dalton High School,” Chitwood recalls, “so Capt. Swiney and I are the best of friends.”

Swiney has been one of the loyal administrators who has served with Chitwood since his first term in office.

Also there from the beginning have been Maj. John Gibson and Capt. Charles Bunch. The youngest administrator is Capt. Wes Lynch, who has been employed with the sheriff’s office since December 2000 and was promoted to his current rank in May 2010.

“I think one thing that we’re proud of is, as I told people whenever I got elected back in ’92, that we can all work together, we can join hand in hand and be a progressive department, and if we so choose, we can walk out of here in 20 years together, and I’ve given you 20 years on your retirement,” said Chitwood. “I never said I’d quit after 20 years; I just said our goal was to serve for 20 years. Now we’re going into 24 years, and the people that I hired back in the mid-’90s when we first came into office, I’ve given those people 24 years on their retirement.”

He hopes the staff realizes that he’s provided a stable foundation for their employment.

“We didn’t come in here chopping heads as often happens with a change of administration,” Chitwood said, “so you’ve got people who are employed here now that have never been through a change of sheriffs. They’ve been through elections now, but there’s not been a change in sheriffs.”

In the old days before the merit system, sheriffs sometimes came in and cleaned house, eliminating dozens of employees. The merit system nowadays prevents that kind of wholesale firings with a new regime.

“Having completed 20 years and now going into 24, we’ve got people that have been with us that long,” Chitwood says. “They don’t know anything but Sheriff Chitwood — they don’t know what it would be like to work for another sheriff. Should a new sheriff come in here, he may not can terminate anyone per se, but there can be a disruption in the department, there can be a change in morale, there can be a change in attitudes, they can certainly make your life difficult.”

Chitwood is proud to look out and see so many long-time employees who have been with him for 15 or 20 years.

“I think that shows commitment, that shows loyalty, that shows dedication, not only to me, but to Whitfield County as a whole,” he said.

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