June 9, 2013

The law’s the law

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

By Mitch Talley Whitfield County director of communications

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.



Changes and upgrades

Naturally, with a career that stretches over 30 years, Chitwood has seen his share of changes in law enforcement and points out that he believes the office has kept up with changing times.

“The electronic age has certainly come on board a lot stronger in the last 20 years,” he said, “so we’ve got a number of programs now in the department that are so computerized. I mean, look at all we can do on the computer in our property and evidence division, our detective division, and all the arrest and booking process in the back and the jail, everything is computerized. So we’ve tried to stay up with the times; we’ve tried to upgrade where we needed to upgrade, and we have.”

Chitwood’s goal has been to run the office in a cost-savings, cost-effective manner and still provide service equal to or greater than before, “and thus far I think we’ve accomplished that,” he said.

He’s proud that the office has been under its operating budget for the past 20 years. “We’re very conscientious about our spending over here,” he said. “I think we’re providing the people with a very, very good service at a very low cost per capita.”

In fact, when Whitfield County is compared to counties of a similar size, “when you look at their budget versus look at ours, look at their manpower versus look at our personnel, we’re on the low end of the scale,” he said.

“But when you balance it out and look at the services that we’re providing, we’re matching them dollar for dollar, for less money. There are departments in the state that have the same population as us, but their department is 260 employees, 290, 245, 250. We’ve got around 193 to 195 positions, so we’re under 200 — but we’re still providing that good service to the public.”

As the county has grown, so has the need for a larger facility to house employees and inmates.

“When I started, I want to say we were around 30 employees, and the old old jail on South Hamilton, if my memory serves me right, you might could have gotten 15 to 20 inmates in there,” Chitwood said.

“When we moved from South Hamilton to Waugh, we thought that was the greatest facility that had ever been constructed. I mean, we had a squad room, we had closet space, but at that same time, the city police moved in there with the sheriff’s department, so we outgrew it within a year because you have two departments sharing the same building.”

The sheriff praises voters for approving a SPLOST that allowed the sheriff’s office to move into the new facility on Professional Boulevard in 2003 that was already paid for.

That was especially cost-effective since overcrowding at the Waugh Street facility had forced the placement of inmates at other facilities. “We were spending $2 million a year housing inmates outside the county,” Chitwood said. “We were hitting numbers of 250 to 300 inmates at that time, so you’re housing out as many people as you’re housing in. But when you’re housing them all the way down to Pelham, outside of Valdosta, six hours away, that’s a day’s trip to go down and get somebody for court and then turn around and take them right back. We were spending a lot of money gas-wise, we had officers out of the county, we were having to pay to house inmates outside the county, so we were spending $2 million a year. That savings alone would pay for this building here.”

He still thinks of the facility as new, even though it’s now 10 years old. “This has been a dream come true for us that had something to compare it to,” Chitwood said. “The new employees that we’ve got, they don’t have anything but this facility to compare it to, but some of us who have been around a little while, we appreciate what it is.”

“When we moved up here, you just thank your blessings for being in the career long enough to see progress being made,” he said. “And we’ve got room for expansion. When the architects designed it, they allowed space for a third pod that would take our capacity from 552 beds to over 800 beds when the time comes. This facility was built for the future, and it should serve our community for a number of years.”



Law enforcement philosophy

Chitwood has a simple philosophy: “Enforce the law but be fair.”

He says he’s told his deputies that you can stop his mom right now, “and if they’re speeding, give ’em a ticket. You’ll never hear me say a word … but you be nice to them.”

That philosophy extends to the entire community. “I believe in treating people with respect until they get to the point where we have to take other options,” he said. “Just be nice. It’s a very simple philosophy, but it’s worked.”

That philosophy extends to complaints from the public.

“I tell people I can’t do anything about your crime, I can’t do anything about your speeding ticket,” Chitwood said. “I can’t touch that, but I CAN deal with an attitude. And that’ll be my question to the caller: ‘But how did my officer treat you?’ ‘Oh, he was very nice, he was very professional. But I disagree with him.’ Tell the judge that; I want to know how my officer conducted himself. That’s what I can deal with.”

Through the years, Chitwood has seen changes in society. “A lot of people think you owe them,” he says. “Nobody wants to take responsibility, nobody wants to be held accountable anymore. A lot of people think they’re above the law, and they’re not. Unfortunately, we’ve had family members of our employees to be in jail. We have placed our own employees in jail before that have done wrong and broken the law.”

“So if anything,” Chitwood said, “I hope we’ve been fair. I think we’re very transparent, certainly honest with the public. But we don’t make exceptions. You know, we don’t apply the law to this individual and not to this individual. The law’s the law.”

When an administration can place its own employees in jail because they broke the law, “I would like to think that people would admire that aspect, that the law applies to everybody,” Chitwood said. “If you break it, you break it. If you don’t, you don’t. But the law applies to everybody, and if anything I hope and think we have applied it in a fair manner through the years, which will be our continued goal.”

Like a family

Being sheriff for 20 years and working for the department even longer than that means that Chitwood has watched his employees and their families go through good times and bad.

“You work with these people day in and day out, seven days a week, some of them since the first year that we came into office,” the sheriff says, “and you’re very close. I can’t tell you the number of funerals that I’ve attended with my employees because they’ve had a family member die, so when they hurt, you hurt.”

Behind his desk, atop a credenza, the sheriff has prominently placed photos of six fellow workers who have passed away.

“I guess I just put that up there for me as a reminder of the good guys, the memories that we worked with, that life’s precious and you never know what one day to the next is going to bring for us,” he says.

Law enforcement is a close family, Chitwood says.

“It’s a brotherhood, it’s a fraternity. You hurt when they hurt, you’re happy when they’re happy. We’ve had a lot of young ladies that have given birth, and we have a lot of men who have become fathers, so they bring the children by. We’ve seen kids grow up over the past 20 years.

“We actually have some employees whose fathers and grandfathers worked here years ago, so you’re seeing a second and third generation coming in place now. You work with somebody 20 years — yeah, you know the good, the bad, you hurt with them, you laugh with them. You’re close, sure. It’s a family by the profession of what we do. Sometimes there might be a closer bond there because if one of the guys gets in a fight or you hear that shots have been fired or an officer down — and those are the things you don’t want to hear, but it does occur — it’s good to know you’ve got backup 30 seconds away and somebody’s gonna come help me.

“That’s pretty sweet when it’s 3 o’clock in the morning and you’re on the side of the road and things are getting heated up with three or four suspects, it’s good to know you’ve got backup coming,” he said.

“That’s a brotherhood, and the average citizen can’t really identify to those incidents like that, unless you’ve been out on the third shift, unless you’ve stopped a car on a back road at 3 o’clock in the morning with dark tinted windows and you have no idea who’s in the car. People don’t know what we do. They have no idea. But we take it as just part of the job. That’s what we chose to do, and probably nobody here can tell you at some point in the game that they haven’t had butterflies or they haven’t been scared or they haven’t been nervous. If they haven’t, they ain’t been in the situation yet, but it’s coming. It’s coming in your career at one point in the game.”

Seventh term?

Will Chitwood seek a seventh term in 2016?

“I decide year by year,” Chitwood said, “but right now I’m still comfortable, we’ve still got stuff to offer, we’ll see what the next four years bring.”

“But right now,” he says, breaking into a big grin and leaning forward in his chair, then laughing after he says it, “I appreciate your vote and support!”

Twenty years later, he believes his staff is still delivering quality service to residents of Whitfield County.

“I think the community has been complimentary to us by election results through the years,” he said, “and I think the people I hope are appreciative to the level of service that we have provided. Are we perfect? Absolutely not. Do we make mistakes? We do it every day. But generally speaking, I think we have provided and continue to provide a good level of service. I think our officers have a good attitude in dealing with the public out there. I get compliments on the guys every day.

“I’m very comfortable with where we’re at, and I still feel like I have something to offer the public, so my intention is to continue at this point in time.”

His goal for the next four years is to continue to provide a high level of service to the people of Whitfield County.

“This job is one that takes commitment, it takes dedication, it takes sacrifice,” said Chitwood, who worked some 2,600 hours last year (a 40-hour week would total 2,080 hours annually). “Me being the single individual that I am, I have time to put a lot of work into it. I’m married to this job. I enjoy it — it’s still fun.”