Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold gives himself a perfect 10 when rating his administration’s performance in his first four-year term.
“I think we’ve been very successful,” says Arnold, a Republican who served as a school resource officer and jailer before defeating Democratic incumbent Truman Jones in 2010. “We’ve done a lot in three and a half years.”
Arnold, who faces former Chief Deputy Bob Asbury in Tuesday’s Republican primary, takes pride in efforts to bring the sheriff’s office into the 21st century by upgrading computer hardware in the dispatch center and putting computers in patrol cars.
He also worked with local residents and MTSU to start a Garden of Hope to teach inmates how to feed their families and set up a Senior Citizens Awareness Network through which volunteers check on the welfare of elderly residents.
But he gets most animated when talking about improvements made to the jail, including kitchen renovation, an area he says was poorly maintained before he took office in 2010. Arnold doesn’t know how much the department has spent on jail upgrades, but he knows it is cleaner and more humane and the labor was done by inmates.
“By painting the jail and through proper sanitation and cleaning, we’ve reduced our infection rate by 90 percent,” Arnold said in a lengthy interview at the sheriff’s office last week. Previously, inmates and detention officers were coming down with staph infections, he said.
In a word, Arnold said, “It doesn’t stink anymore.”
Arnold says he takes pride in having a clean jail and notes that the more than 700 inmates incarcerated there deserve respect from officers and through a “humane” environment.
Yet even after his nephew, Officer James Vanderveer, pepper-sprayed a confined inmate last year, Arnold says he didn’t fire him because Vanderveer didn’t violate procedure or policy. Supervisors did give Vanderveer a reprimand because he left a spit mask on the inmate too long.
A YouTube video shows the officer spraying the inmate after his face was covered. Arnold says the inmate was uncontrollable, kicking and spitting, before he was confined to the chair, given orders to stop kicking one leg that was loose and ultimately sprayed in the face before being taken to the clinic to be checked.
Previously, Vanderveer resigned from the sheriff’s office in February 2012, a day before being charged with DUI. He was later rehired.
The department opened an annex for detectives, school resource officers and the training division in spring 2013, a $1 million project that circumvented a proposed $9 million building expansion set up under the previous administration, according to Arnold.
Although the sheriff’s office budget is up $5 million to $22.99 million from three years ago, Arnold attributes some of that to $450,000 in pay and benefit increases annually. He also points toward higher spending on Information Technology and the addition of 13 personnel last year, mainly school resource officers, which cost more than $750,000. The department spent another $1.46 million on vehicles last year, according to county budget documents.
The proposed sheriff’s department budget for fiscal 2015 actually calls for a small reduction, which Arnold attributes to cuts everywhere. But the jail budget could increase by $500,000, mainly because of inmate medical care, pushing it to $15.5 million, compared to $12.83 million in fiscal 2012. Arnold contends that part of the jail budget increase can be linked to more spending for renovations and maintenance. “This place was not properly maintained at all,” and it still has some problems, he says.
Arnold points toward evidence of good stewardship of taxpayer dollars through obtaining $250,000 from the Rutherford County Emergency Communications District to fund part of the dispatch center upgrade. He also saved more than $111,560 on inmate food by eliminating condiments such as mustard and ketchup and coffee and by requiring inmates to bake their own bread in a new jail kitchen.
In addition, sheriff renegotiated an inmate phone company contract, added video visitation and raised $276,000 from bail bond fees, phone fees for inmates, recycling and video visitation. He also set up an inmate discipline board and appeals process that cut jail lawsuits by 76 percent, he says.
Despite giving his office a perfect rating, Arnold did acknowledge having some rough waters amid the calm.
Vehicle repair: Arnold’s sports-utility vehicle was damaged in July 2012 when a neighbor’s trampoline slammed into it during a storm, according to a Tennessee Highway Patrol incident report.
But instead of the damage, $1,232, being paid through the homeowner’s insurance policy, it was done through the sheriff’s office maintenance fund, according to documents.
“It’s up to the county insurance department to recoup those costs,” Arnold said.
The fact that the trampoline belonged to Joe Russell, his chief administrator, had nothing to do with the way the damage was paid for, according to Arnold.
“Everything was done above board and turned in to the county, just like any other incident or wreck,” Arnold said.
Damage to the undercarriage of Arnold’s vehicle – sustained when he went through a median during a pursuit – was repaired at the same time, he said, because the incidents happened within about two weeks of each other.
Inmate granted trusty job: Josh Evans, the younger brother of county mayor candidate Jimmy Evans, served time at the jail starting June 1, 2013 for a second DUI and evading arrest. Two days later, he was granted trusty status based on the sheriff’s order, according to department documents.
Arnold said he didn’t recall anything about the matter when asked about it last week, but he said he did remember Evans being at the jail because he helped at an auto auction.
The sheriff’s office later explained by email that Evans was allowed to be a trusty and help prepare cars for auction because he had skills in auto detailing. He lost the trusty job because deputies found a lighter in his clothing, but he later retained it so he could detail cars, according to the office.
Asked about the matter last week, Jimmy Evans said he didn’t know anything about it. He said his brother hasn’t worked at his auto dealership for six or seven months.
Uniform comments: Arnold also has taken some political shots because of comments he made a year ago while requesting funds from county commissioners for new uniforms. The sheriff told commissioners that old uniforms made of 100 percent polyester were more likely to catch fire.
During a county meeting, he said he refused to rescue a man from a burning vehicle because he was worried that his polyester uniform was too flammable.
Asked in last week’s interview if he felt that was the right way for an emergency responder to react, Arnold said the incident took place in 2006 on I-24 near the new Embassy Suites site at 2:30 or 3 in the morning when a vehicle carrying two men wrecked and caught fire. He said he was one of the first ones on the scene, but the vehicle was fully engulfed when he arrived and there was no way to pull them out. Emergency Medical Services extracted them only after the fire department extinguished the blaze, he said.
Still, he noted, “When you have those situations, you have to take into account you’re wearing a 100 percent polyester suit.”
The sheriff purchased a set of green utility uniforms for deputies and detention officers that are quite different from the standard blue that he says were worn out. Some people have likened the new outfits to forest ranger or TWRA uniforms.
But Arnold said he’s heard no complaints about them.
“The guys like them and when I talk to people, they say they can identify a sheriff’s deputy versus a city officer very easily now,” Arnold said.
Politicking on the job: Despite the advantage of name recognition, Arnold has been pouring a good deal of energy into fundraising and campaigning for another term. He leads Asbury by about $12,000 in campaign fundraising.
Asked about mixing work with politics, Arnold said, “I campaign every day on the job.” He contends it is legal, too, because he’s the only elected official who is never off duty.
“If I go to a fish fry on Saturday night and I’m talking politics, I’m on duty,” he said. “If I go eat breakfast at Jefferson Pike Market (in Walter Hill), I’m on duty.” The same is true, he said, if he spends time talking to people at the Walter Hill Country Club.
Drug fund money: County records showed the drug fund, which is made up largely of money seized in drug-related arrests, dwindled from $760,700 three years ago to $364,000, even after narcotics detectives’ salaries were moved into the regular sheriff’s office budget, which is under the county general fund.
Records showed numerous expenditures for items such as full sets of tools from Lowe’s, in addition to spending on feed and veterinary bills for the mounted patrol unit. Expenses for the horses, which were historically said to be donated, were later removed.
Arnold contends that the drug fund is far from “depleted” with $364,000. And some $250,000 in revenue from the drug fund was used for maintenance and repair on the sheriff’s office, which the sheriff says is acceptable under the guidelines for spending drug fund money.
Arnold believes several of his initiatives have improved service across the county, including creation of a Traffic Section to focus on crashes and reducing fatalities. It also handles residents’ complaints about speeding and running traffic signs. The sheriff, however, says patrol deputies do work wrecks while patrolling their zones and were sent to THP school to work on their reporting skills.
The sheriff says on-duty detention officers handle hospital duties to cut overtime costs, and two other part-time employees work transport and hospital duty so deputies can stay on patrol.
Arnold also set up the Active Crime Enforcement Unit to deal with hot spots for crimes such as burglaries and thefts. He believes that is partly responsible for a more than 20 percent crime reduction in the unincorporated areas of the county last year.
The Criminal Intelligence and Analysis Unit, meanwhile, was formed to track crimes and enable deputies and detectives to focus on crime trends.
The crime rate actually increased more than 20 percent two years ago and about 1 percent last year, so it’s about flat after his three and a half years.
Arnold was criticized by Asbury in a recent interview for setting up 12-hour shifts, but the sheriff points out that patrol officers voted 61-23 to work those longer shifts. It marked a second vote for 12-hour work, he said.
Looking toward the future
Using inmate labor, the sheriff’s office recently completed a project on the Eagleville ballpark that is believed to have saved the small city about $50,000.
Arnold, who says inmate labor also saved the county more than $500,000 on jail work, hopes to start several other community projects with inmates, including picking up litter along roads.
Continuing to improve Information Technology is another goal for a next term, along with building the office’s communication infrastructure to eliminate dead spots where officers can’t contact the dispatch center. Those, combined with increased vigilance to reduce crime, should help the sheriff’s office “stay the course,” he believes.