When Bob Asbury started his career with the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department 36 years ago under Craig Snell, he received two pairs of pants, three shirts and a badge. He had to supply the rest of the equipment, including his gun and bullets.
In fact, two older people in the department went with him to Roses to buy bullets because he had to be 21 to purchase ammunition, he says. After that, he rode with former Deputy Ken Roberts for two evenings, then was on his own.
During his 32 years with the department, he worked as a deputy, started the narcotics division as a detective, supervised patrol officers, then managed the jail for 11 years as chief deputy.
The department staff rose from 35 to nearly 450 as Asbury climbed the ranks over three decades. Still, his position wasn’t secure, and when Sheriff Robert Arnold took office four years ago, he resigned after being offered a job as night-shift jailer.
As the Republican primary approaches May 6, Asbury says his experience, management philosophy and conservative fiscal stance separate him from Arnold in the sheriff race.
“I do not agree with the way money has been spent,” Asbury says, pointing out the sheriff’s office budget is up $8 million in the last three years.
In his last year, 2010, the jail budget was $12 million but has jumped to $15 million, he says.
The budget for overtime pay also has risen $1.1 million, about three times as much as it was, according to Asbury. Meanwhile, the drug fund, which is derived largely from narcotics seizures and arrests, is nearly “depleted,” he says.
Besides reining in spending, Asbury says he would change operations in several ways, primarily by eliminating some of the divisions set up by Arnold and allowing patrol deputies to take on more responsibilities. For instance, patrol deputies should be allowed to work wrecks and transport prisoners while working their zones, instead of calling the traffic division or transport division to handle those responsibilities, Asbury says.
In addition, some officers are being paid overtime for hospital duty when that could be split by deputies, he says.
Asbury also disagrees with 12-hour shifts sheriff’s office personnel are working. He says he would go through the entire budget and personnel to simplify matters and make sure people are working in the right areas.
The former chief deputy, who is now working for the marshal’s service at the federal courthouse in Nashville, says he believes the drug fund is being used for “frivolous spending,” such as stereos for unmarked cars, fancy light bars and numerous other items.
Arnold persuaded the Rutherford County Commission in 2013 to remove narcotics detectives’ salaries from the drug fund, largely by arguing that they shouldn’t be trying to arrest people to fund their pay.
“I don’t consider that fishing for your pay. That’s their job,” Asbury says. He adds, “Why does everything have to fall back on property taxpayers?”
Asbury also believes three sets of uniforms, new weapons, furniture and new vehicles purchased during Arnold’s first term were wasteful spending.
“There’s no reason for anyone except patrol officers to get new cars,” Asbury says.
While Arnold has touted numerous renovations at the sheriff’s office during his first term, Asbury says improvements to the jail’s kitchen and several other projects were planned when he was serving as chief deputy. In fact, Asbury says he worked with an architect to draw up plans for the new jail kitchen.
Former Sheriff Truman Jones didn’t give Asbury much choice when he asked him to take over jail operations 15 years ago, but now Asbury calls his 11 years as jail administrator the most rewarding.
At one point in his career, all he focused on was arresting criminals and locking them up. But after he took the post, aside from having to hire about 100 new officers, he realized that the sheriff’s office should be making a positive impact on inmates.
“You need to spend that time to offer them the opportunity to change their lives,” Asbury says.
He began offering them anger management courses, parenting classes, life-skills training and initiated a therapeutic community in which inmates in one pod governed themselves, took classes, helped each other and developed communication skills.
“It was just a fantastic experiment,” he says, noting it also helped dissolve adversarial relationships between jailers and inmates.
Throughout the department, Asbury says he wants to create a “stable work environment,” one in which staff members won’t be afraid of demotion or firing if they hold a different opinion from the sheriff.
With that in mind, he wants to create a civil service or merit system within his first term, if he’s elected, so people won’t be in danger of losing their jobs in a sheriff administration change.
“As long as they’re doing their job they should have nothing to worry about,” Asbury says.
And, of course, they won’t have to buy their own bullets, either.