by Louis Goggans —
Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. is among a diverse group of officials in full support of Gov. Bill Lee’s decision setting up a task force to address the need for a plan to enhance law enforcement policies and improve the overall decision-making of officers.
Recently, the first African-American to serve as the county’s sheriff spoke with The New Tri-State Defender about the broken bridge between law enforcement and the community and how the governor’s new police reform plan will help rebuild it.
Bonner also addressed the impact of COVID-19 on the county’s jails and revealed plans for a new civilian hiring committee.
TSD: There have been multiple police-involved deaths and incidents of excessive force. To a certain extent, these occurrences have divided law enforcement and the communities they serve. Additionally, we’re all dealing with the societal effects of COVID-19. Considering these issues, how challenging has it been for you and your deputies?
Sheriff Bonner: It’s been very challenging, and it breaks my heart to see people want to categorize us all because of a few bad actors in this profession. At the Sheriff’s Office, we’re a CALEA-certified organization. That’s not a rubber stamp; it means something. We go above and beyond what is expected of us from the state. For instance, to be a highway patrolman, you only have to do 488 hours in school, but we do 1,016 hours with our officers. The state only requires 40 hours for you to be a correctional officer, but we do 400 with our officers. We have a very high standard. Not to say we always get it right, but it’s not from the lack of trying. Last year, we had over 16,000 contacts, and we had only eight reports of excessive force. We take citizens’ complaints very seriously, and we try to make the best decision possible.
During these times of COVID-19, we’ve had as many as 239 inmates test positive for COVID – 231 have recovered. We have eight active cases right now, and we don’t have any inmates in the hospital. Also, today our population at 201 Poplar is 1,989; out at Jail East we have 204, and down at Juvenile Court we have 30. All of those numbers are substantially down from when I became Sheriff in 2018. We work with our law enforcement partners and do all we can to reduce our inmate population as safely as possible.
TSD: You’re among the officials in Tennessee who support Gov. Lee’s new police reform plan. What motivated you to get on board, and what do you hope is accomplished from this effort in the future?
Bonner: Well, I was invited by Gov. Lee out of the 95 sheriffs in Tennessee to join the Task Force and speak on police reform. I went to Nashville recently for a press conference with him. I think the first thing we all realized that we needed to do across the state was make sure every police agency and sheriff’s office had a duty-to-intervene policy as well as an up to date use-of-force policy. We also talked about both de-escalation and racially bias training. The state has even added a component now to where every police officer in the state will be required to do four hours of community service, which I think is a good thing because of the public perception of police officers right now. It behooves all officers to be the best that we can be. I think that Gov. Lee took the right step at the right time to engage this task force. I’m hoping that we will have continuous meetings, but we’ve laid a really good foundation.
TSD: Does the Sheriff’s Office in particular have plans to implement any initiatives to help ease the community’s civil unrest?
Bonner: Yes, I’m getting a Civilian Hiring Committee together. I’ve picked out five people in the community who are going to be a part of the hiring process at the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. They will interview sheriff deputy candidates, and have an opportunity to help select the next class of deputy sheriffs. I think that’s really important. This is the first time that we’ve ever tried this type of committee. We really want to be transparent with the community, and we want the community to support us.
TSD: You’re approaching four decades with the Sheriff’s Office. Over your career, what has been one of the valuable lessons you’ve learned that continues to help you today?
Bonner: Back when I was a young patrolman at the very beginning of my career, I had a sergeant who worked in the same jail as me. His name was Sam Allen. I worked midnights on the jail floor with Sgt. Allen – it would actually be four of us. Each night, he would make it his business to talk to us about how to police and treat people. I never will forget, he told us one night that it’s a lot easier to talk a man into the back of a squad car than to fight with him to get him in the car. That advice has stayed with me throughout my career, and I try to impart that wisdom into our younger officers, and also ensure they’re aware of the consequences that come with any bad decisions they make.
TSD: You made history in 2018 by becoming Shelby County’s first African-American Sheriff. During the early stages of your career, did you dream of achieving this accomplishment, and how has the journey been thus far?
Bonner: I knew one thing when I came to the Sheriff’s Office and it was that I did not want to retire as a patrolman. As I moved up in rank, I started dreaming about becoming sheriff one day. I always knew that I would have to achieve a certain rank for the community to take me serious and to understand that I had the experience to run the agency. You hit little bumps and bruises, and you think that maybe you don’t have a shot, but God has blessed me. When I thought it wasn’t a way, He made a way.
I’m so humbled and appreciative for this opportunity to serve the citizens of Shelby County. Being someone who came out of Orange Mound and Westwood and was elected sheriff, I understand that I am a role model. I know I’m not going to be sheriff forever, so I’m hoping I can do or say something that encourages young people and helps them understand that no matter what their circumstances are, they can do it, too.