Despite this new jail facility, Bedford County Sheriff Austin Swing says they are having a corrections officer and deputy staff shortage. "...I don’t remember us having the kind of turnover we have today with corrections officers."
Bedford County Sheriff Austin Swing said he’s maybe one of two active officers left in the County who locked someone in the historic 1867 jail off behind the U.S Bank on the north side of Shelbyville’s Square.
That would have been in the mid-1980s when Swing was a police officer in Shelbyville. Swing recalled taking prisoners up to the second-floor cells, accessed only by an unstable, swinging staircases.
The next jail, located at on North Spring Street, was originally built to house around 70 inmates, Swing said. But it was built more like an “office.” Three inmates escaped in 2018, while officers could not classify inmates.
“In the previous facility, they were literally sleeping on the floors next to the commodes. It was pretty horrible,” Swing said. “Fortunately, this new jail is so much safer not only for the corrections officers but for the prisoners.”
The new jail, located at the Justice Center Complex on Northcreek Drive, can hold up to 400 inmates. As of this week, there are 185 inmates at jail.
Despite this new jail facility, Swing says they are having a corrections officer and deputy staff shortage.
“When I first came into office, just a little under 8 years ago, I don’t remember us having the kind of turnover we have today with corrections officers,” Swing said.
Prison facilities across the state are having a problem with keeping employees in the jail, Swing said. For example, the Marshall County Sheriff said they had to bring in deputies to fill in their jail staff positions.
“The corrections officers, one thing they deal with that the deputy out on the street really doesn’t, is you’ve got 200 people in jail, and you have to take care of their every need . . . . They are in our custody, and it is our job to take care of them,” said Swing.
At over 100 employees, the sheriff’s office is the largest County employer in Bedford County other than the school system, according to Swing.
Swing has several ideas as to why there’s a challenge in finding corrections officers as well as deputies. For one, there’s a stigma attached to working in a jail.
“Most people in jail are not going to try to cut your head off. I think some people have that perception . . . .” Swing said. “No doubt it’s a tough job, just like being out here on the streets is a tough job,” Swing said.
“So, it requires common sense and for individuals to be on guard. Man, I wish I had a dollar for every time I said a little prayer before I went out the door.”
But most people in jail are in for minor offenses versus felonies, “waiting to serve their time then get out,” Swing said.
Then, of course, there’s pay. However, Swing doesn’t believe the staff shortage is because of inadequate pay.
Excluding Williamson or Rutherford counties, jailers in Bedford make as much or more than surrounding counties, according to Swing. Jailers make around $15 per hour, while deputies make $20+ per hour.
“I don’t think the shortage is because of inadequate pay, but do they deserve more? Yes,” Swing said.
Also, the last 2 years have not been “kind” to law enforcement, according to Swing.
“Because in this day and time, you can have one officer do something wrong—and I don’t care how far away it is—it’s on everybody’s TV set and it’s a reflection on everybody,” he said.
Since last year, Swing said, they’ve noticed a lot of officers on the West Coast applying for work in the South.
“People in the South think a lot more about their police officers than many people in the North or West Coast. It’s that simple,” Swing said.
Changes in drug crime
The basic objective of law enforcement is to protect people and their property. It’s a goal that has remained the same over the years, Swing said.
But what’s changed the most are the prevalence of drugs.
When Swing said he started as an officer in the 1970s, marijuana was the biggest drug problem. Then it moved to cocaine and then crack cocaine. He thought it couldn’t get any worse, but now many Tennessee counties are seeing a rise in crystal meth. “Which I think is worse than crack cocaine,” Swing said.
Basically, it’s that way everywhere. Swing said there’s also a reemergence of heroine since it’s cheaper price and gives what seems to be a better “high.”
“There are so many other crimes and people are in jail for other crimes, but often it’s because of a drug habitat,” he said.
“Thankfully, both the Bedford County Sheriff’s Department and the Shelbyville Police Department as well as some other counties, we have the 17th Judicial Drug Task Force and that’s all they do,” said Swing. “They do a good job, but it’s so overwhelming.”
These drug cases aren’t necessarily new to law enforcement, nor will they end. As long as there’s demand, there will always be a supply of drugs, according to Swing.
Swing says adding more deputies in addition to what they have would not end the drug crime or crime in general.
“Obviously, we would have more patrol, so I think it would help in reducing crime . . . . But in that sense, I can’t just say if I had a 100 more deputies, I’d stop crime in Bedford County, because I couldn’t,” Swing said.
Still, the more criminals see patrol cars out on the road, the more they want to go somewhere else, Swing said.
In addition to more deputies for better law enforcement presence, Swing said they need more patrol cars. He admits it’s an “expensive ticket,” but their patrol cars drive anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 miles a day.
Swing said the sheriff’s department is expecting to get new patrol cars this year.
Swing graduated from the FBI National Academy in March of 1997. He served as the Shelbyville Police Chief for 21 years and was elected sheriff in 2014 and again in 2018.
“I’m not saying it’s been all smooth-sailing, but it has been a great experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said. He says what’s kept him in this career so long is the community support.
As a Shelbyville native, it’s a benefit to have a vested interest in the Bedford-area as a law enforcement officer.
“I’ve just been blessed.... It’s easy to get motivated when you have that kind of help,” he said. “It’s still a community. And I think Bedford’s always been that tight-knit community.”
The sheriff’s department has been conducting interviews this week for potential dispatchers and clerical positions as well as deputies.
Most applicants the sheriff’s department gets are from Bedford County. Like for Swing, it’s a benefit since those applicants have an interest and familiarity with the area. They tend to stay on longer as well, he said.
Swing said he’s encouraged by the criminal justice students at Central and Cascade High Schools. They can be potential future local law enforcement employees.
Plus, the good relationship between the Shelbyville Police Department and the Bedford County Sheriff’s Department helps with law enforcement positions, he added.
“You really do need to have a good relationship with your sister department,” Swing said. “Sometimes when I interview somebody, they just want to work in corrections. But sometimes they’re using it as a steppingstone to get out here as a deputy . . . same with the police department. They’ll interview our jail staff that apply with them, and so that creates a good relationship too.”