By Kim Gronniger
Even a relatively uneventful Sunday afternoon ride-along with Shawnee County Sheriff Herman Jones
can bring into focus the many duties of a law enforcement officer.
Jones is an authority, caretaker and enforcer, along with many other roles he plays.
What might his experiences teach us about the leadership challenges being faced in law enforcement?
Sundays are typically the busiest day of the week for law enforcement. Custody exchanges, sports team losses and the looming start of the workweek create tensions leading to poor decisions. But my Sunday ride-along in June with affable Shawnee County Sheriff Herman Jones was uneventful. The only action was on Interstate 70 when he gave a warning to a young man who had been speeding and changing lanes without using a signal and checked on a couple who had pulled their car over to make sure things were OK.
However, while he and I were discussing what deputies face in the line of duty, a dispatcher was sending colleagues around the county to car accident scenes, to a home where a mother feared her teenage daughter might be suicidal and to a residence where a woman reported her ex-husband was violating a restraining order.
My ride-along was courtesy of the Shawnee County Sheriff’s Office, part of a program that encourages adults 18 and older to accompany a deputy on calls to get a glimpse of activities unfolding in the county and cultivate respect for the difficult and diverse duties officers perform to keep the peace and promote public safety.
It’s a daily crapshoot for law enforcement officers. Their shifts can change from mundane to mayhem in a single moment, a wearing reality they are conditioned to accept.
Jones recalled several incidents that demonstrated how quickly things can change. In one, he had to cease pursuing a drunken driver who was speeding and weaving on icy roads because proceeding would have endangered the safety of other motorists. Unfortunately, the driver eventually hit another car head-on, seriously injuring two passengers. In another situation, a mother who was eight months pregnant was driving with her two children, including a 10 year-old daughter whose leukemia had recently gone into remission. The mother became disoriented and drifted into another lane and her car was hit and pushed against a guardrail. Jones witnessed the accident and immediately called 911 and requested an air ambulance. Ultimately, everyone lived except the daughter.
In a more personal instance, a deputy whom Jones had mentored was shot several times after pulling over a couple of drug dealers. The deputy recovered, but the emotional toll still lingers for Jones.
“I look at these deputies as my kids,” Jones says. “When you see one of your own in a hospital bed with tubes everywhere, you realize this is real. You feel rage and want to rip someone’s head off. But instead you gather your composure and do what needs to be done.”
BALANCING THE GOOD AND THE BAD
Jones strives to dispel the simplicity of a “black hat/white hat” dichotomy in law enforcement. He believes that “most people are essentially good,” but sometimes they make bad choices. For Jones, the work his team does on the front end through participation on and off the job in community service initiatives is every bit as essential to performance as integrity, a badge and a gun.
“If I stop a car for speeding, it’s probably not the first time that driver has exceeded the limit,” says Jones. “If they get away with going 5 miles over, then they might move the needle up to 8 or 12 miles over and so on. Most people start in the shallow end of the pool of inappropriate behavior and then before too long they’re comfortable floating in the deep end.”
Jones oversees a $16.9 million budget and staff of 178, 108 of them law enforcement officers. He immerses himself and his staff in issues and initiatives that allow them to engage with civilians through casual encounters, promoting causes such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, Special Olympics, the Boy Scouts of America, Ronald McDonald House Charities and CASA of Shawnee County to enhance the office’s visibility as a community partner.
Ride-alongs, whether with a sheriff’s deputy or a Topeka Police Department officer, are a requirement for all Leadership Greater Topeka participants, including Jones, who completed the program in 2015. The Sheriff’s Office also sponsors a participant for the leadership program each year and works with the Latino Leadership Collaborative of Kansas.
However, it’s the officers’ participation in extensive educational interactions with children that might yield the best long-term results for Shawnee County – playing four square or basketball with kids who may have behavioral problems at a local elementary school following a pizza party, implementing the 10-week DARE curriculum for sixth-graders to discourage substance abuse and bullying, or facilitating summer youth camps for sixth through eighth-graders to promote citizenship.
Youth mentorship is particularly important to Jones, whose personal tagline —“Aspire to inspire before you expire”— is not only embedded into all of his email correspondence but also into the Sheriff’s Office culture.
“Everything we do is about service,” Jones says. “We try to balance the good and the bad.”
Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad to balance. Jones estimates half of all arrests involve people under the influence of alcohol, drugs or both. Mental health issues are pervasive, including veterans contending with post-traumatic stress disorder and children coping with untenable family situations.
“They see their parents do drugs and witness domestic violence and then grow up to repeat what they know,” Jones says. “We don’t have enough services to support people with these issues.”
Technological advancements and internet access also exacerbate crime, enabling someone in a small Kansas town to create child pornography locally and distribute it globally or make meth as easily as counterparts in metropolitan areas.
“Meth doesn’t take much to manufacture, and its effects are more damaging than cocaine’s,” says Jones. “We’re seeing users from the homeless to the well-off and young to old, despite the fact that it’s essentially like ingesting rat poison or car exhaust into your system.”
Even societal shifts in attitudes toward parenting and being neighborly can wind up with calls to law enforcement officers.
“We get calls from parents to talk to sons and daughters who refuse to attend grade school and from neighbors complaining about loud noises because people just aren’t as neighborly as they used to be,” he says. “If you know your neighbors, they’re more apt to help you or accommodate you because it’s harder to go against someone you know.”
BACK TO NORMALCY
A self-professed lifelong “do-gooder and rule follower,” Jones grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, in a loving family where accountability, curiosity, courtesy and learning something new every day were expected behaviors, character traits he strives to instill in his colleagues too.
Jones initially thought his academic path at Emporia State University would culminate in a bachelor’s degree in business or engineering instead of one in psychology. His career shift occurred gradually as the campus security position he took evolved into a tangible fascination with law enforcement.
The psychology degree helps Jones in every aspect of his role, including his criteria for determining who gets a warning or a ticket for a moving violation, like the young man pulled over during my ride-along. Jones explained to the driver the importance of following the speed limit and concluded the cordial exchange with a smile and a handshake.
“When I see a violation, I assess how egregious it is, and I know before I get out of the car whether I’m going to give the person a warning or a ticket,” he says. “My rule is that I can go down but not up once I encounter the motorist. I may decide to reduce the citation to a warning, but I won’t escalate a warning to a ticket just because someone snapped at me or irritated me. Then it becomes an attitude ticket, something that’s personal instead of a matter of law, and that just leads to trouble.”
Jones likens dealing with the ills of society that officers witness on the job to a balloon that keeps inflating.
“It’s not normal for most people to see an arm torn off in a car crash or bleeding holes in someone’s chest. If you don’t release that pressure, something’s going to happen.”
Officers have personal things to deal with in their lives like everyone else, from finances and family relationships to sickness and other stressors, so he encourages officers to pursue hobbies or become involved in church and community activities as healthy outlets after hours.
“People seem to think we all have that Superman ‘S’ on our chest. And although we’re trained to work through the situations we encounter, at the end of the day we need to do something that takes us back to normalcy,” he says.
The constant, quick shifts from danger to do-gooding would be daunting to many, but Jones thrives on law enforcement’s ability and agility to make a positive difference in any scenario, from car crashes and criminal apprehension to community causes and character development programs.
“There are good people who genuinely appreciate what our officers do in law enforcement,” he says.
“Their expressions of support fuel my purpose and encourage me to keep coming back.”
This article was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.