By Toni Stauffer
On Jan. 14 at the Instructional and Performing Arts Center at Chattahoochee Valley Community College, Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor wore his heart on his sleeve in a rare moment. At 11 a.m., Taylor stood on stage before Judge David Johnson, his peers, family and friends to be sworn in for the third time, the first time being in 2010. His voice trembled with emotion as he talked about the great accomplishments achieved for and by his department, the struggles endured, and hopes for the future as not only himself, but his staff and fellow law enforcement officers continue their work to serve and protect the public.
Taylor said when he transitioned into the Sheriff’s office, he realized it’s more than putting people in jail – it’s affecting lives.
“It’s making our community a better place to live and raise a family. That’s what you’re charged with and that’s what I’m charged with,” he said.
Also sworn into office were Chief Deputy William Alexander III, senior staff, deputy sheriffs, correction officers, office staff and communications, support-animal control and reserves.
After the devotional, the presentation of the colors and the national anthem, former sheriff and Master of Ceremony Tommy Boswell introduced District Attorney Kenny Davis as the keynote speaker. Having been born in Columbus in 1946 and serving as a prosecutor for the last 40 years, Davis said he marvels at the physical changes that have occurred in Phenix City and Russell County during his lifetime and the changes in law enforcement, such as equipment and technology.
Davis said that in the 1950s, an officer’s equipment mostly consisted of a .38 revolver, a billy club, a flashlight and a pair of handcuffs. His cruiser, if he had one, didn’t have automatic windows or air conditioning. Those officers were also unaware of the changes in Constitutional law that officers deal with today, such as search and seizure law, or Miranda rights—there weren’t any Miranda rights back then, nor did citizens have a right to an attorney, Davis said.
Davis continued that today, officers must be proficient in many different types of equipment and technology, from firearms to computers in a wireless, high-action job full of split-second decisions on a constant basis. They must also be educated about intangibles like DNA and a vast array of police and investigative procedures, as well as understanding diplomacy.
While today’s officers do have some of the same equipment as those of the officers from yesteryear, Davis said “his responsibilities and his proficiencies with those things are vastly different.” He said it takes tremendous training today to be a law enforcement officer.
“I would submit to you that the education and re-education of a law enforcement officer is more intense than a medical professional or a lawyer,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, in today’s world, you are asked to be a psychologist, a lawyer, a pharmacologist, a teacher, a counselor and an EMT, all while being abused by Hollywood and by people you deal with on the street every day.”
“Every 53 hours, in this country, a law enforcement officer…loses [his or her] life in the performance of [his or her] duties,” Davis said. “In the last seven days, three police officers across this country were ambushed and murdered—two of them were women. Fifty-three thousand assaults are perpetrated on law enforcement officers every year…more than 300 law enforcement officers, every year in this country, take their own lives. It is a difficult profession. It is a tough career.”
Davis said it is tougher in this country than in other countries because of our founding principles—the principle thrust of our Constitution and Bill of Rights being to limit the government and absolve the individual, and that officers must remember that their central focus has to be for them to be as unobtrusive as possible to the average citizen while protecting the public. “Stay calm, be professional and do your job,” he said.
Davis talked about how the officers might become discouraged, that it may seem sometimes that they are not making a difference, but he ended by telling a story about a grandfather who lived on the beach who had a little granddaughter who visited in the summer. They would get up early, he said, and walk on the beach where she would find sand dollars and starfish. One summer, after a bad storm, thousands of sand dollars and starfish lay dying on the sand. The little girl ran and began picking them up and putting them back in the surf to save them. The grandfather told her she couldn’t possibly save all of them. “I know granddaddy,” the little girl said, holding up a sand dollar, “but I saved this one.”
“That’s what you do every day,” Davis told the officers waiting to be sworn in. “You save the ones you can.”