Sheriff weighs job toll, concerns on civil rights

Tom KingFarragut

Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler asked his audience how our day started. “Mine started by finding out that two young men, 20 and 19, were killed in a wreck in Gibbs on East Emory Road,” he said Wednesday during the Rotary Club of Farragut’s weekly luncheon meeting. “I understand they were late for work and got in too big of a hurry.”

He paused. “And one of the boys’ father drove up on the wreck. I ask you to pray for those young men and their families in this tragic accident. And for our officers – they deal with things like this every day, and it’s not easy on them like people think. We have feelings and these things get to you, plus it’s really hard when they deal with the families involved. Pray for these families.”

The two victims were good friends Cameron Smith, 20, a former basketball and baseball player at Pigeon Forge, and 19-year-old Bryce Collier, a former football player at Gibbs High School. It was a one-vehicle accident, according to the KCSO, and the car hit a tree.

Farragut Rotary, meeting at Fox Den Country Club, welcomed the sheriff for the first time since his election on May 1, 2018.

Sheriff Tom Spangler

Spangler talked about a number of issues facing his department, and he began with the issue of the transportation of patients with mental illness. “By law, we have to transport these people from one facility to the other, and we take five to 10 people daily,” he said. “We have to put them in the back of a patrol car in handcuffs by law, and I think we’re being forced to violate their civil rights. We’re adding to their situation instead of helping. These are not criminals. They’ve done nothing wrong, and we’re not the right agency to be doing this. We’re having to transport people in handcuffs who have not committed a crime.”

Many Tennessee sheriffs are lobbying for the state to change the law to reform this practice.

He was asked about the issue of immigration and Section 287(g) of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, which authorizes the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to deputize selected state and local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law. “I believe in this law because it makes our community safer,” he said. “When we arrest someone, we first ask where they are from. If they can’t provide it, an ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) agent at the jail digs deeper. If they are from another country, they take control and they are out of our jail in 48 hours.

“But,” he added, “our officers do not enforce 287(g). We don’t knock on doors or look for illegal immigrants. We have enough to do without that. We come in contact with them if they commit a crime and are charged. We don’t stop people in their cars because we think they may be an illegal immigrant. Right now we have 13 illegal immigrants in our jail out of a population of 1,500.”

A big problem all emergency-services agencies are trying to deal with today is a lack of young people applying for jobs, be it the sheriff’s office, Knoxville police and fire departments, Rural Metro and AMR, the Knoxville Volunteer Emergency Rescue Squad or smaller fire departments and volunteer fire departments.

For the sheriff’s office, two deficiencies speak to this: low pay and no pension plan. The starting salary for a corrections officer working in the jail is $32,000. When they graduate from the training academy, it rises to $35,000 and then $37,000 at the next level. The sheriff’s office does offer a 401(k) plan.

“This is why many of our officers work two or three jobs to make ends meet, and they get tired on the job,” he said. “It’s tough, but we have a very tight-knit organization. The passion is there, but the salary is not what we want it to be.”

It’s hard to compete with the city of Knoxville, which starts rookie officers at $40,000, and the $60,000-plus jobs in Oak Ridge, Spangler said.

If you’re interested in exploring membership in Farragut Rotary, drop me an email or call me at (865) 659-3562. We meet at 12:15 p.m. each Wednesday at Fox Den Country Club. Join us as a guest and see how you like Rotary!

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