Grundy County sheriff offers apology during appearance before state police training commission

Heath Gunter offers apology, promises improvements

Staff Photo by Ben Benton / Handcuffs and shackles hang ready in the booking area at the Grundy County Justice Center in 2016.

The sheriff in Grundy County, Tennessee, apologized Friday to members of a state law enforcement training commission, reported the outcome of an internal investigation, the reinstatement of one of the deputies involved, and promised improvements on July audit findings his deputies were working untrained and alone.

As a first-time sheriff, Sheriff Heath Gunter told members of the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission on Friday he was still learning the job and had inherited record-keeping problems at the same time 23 officers walked out the day after he took office.

"I want to stand here humbly in front of you to apologize for having to have this matter come up," Gunter told commissioners Friday during his appearance. "The Grundy County Sheriff's Office has certainly not tried to deliberately thumb its nose or oppose the commissioners or Director Rafael Bellow."

Bellow is assistant director of the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy. The academy participated in the commission's audit and investigation visits earlier this year.

Gunter was responding to commissioners who took issue in July with his attitude about the commission's findings and about state investigators visiting local schools to see if any uncertified officers were working there.

"Sometimes, I'm not user-friendly, and I'm working on that," Gunter said.

Gunter told the commission Friday his deputies are getting caught up on training, and all but one is now listed in a state training management system that tracks law enforcement officers' schooling and certifications. Meanwhile, the sheriff said, filling open positions is a continuing challenge.

One resignation, one reinstatement

The sheriff addressed the suspensions of two deputies last month following the commission's July 21 meeting and reported the outcome of an internal investigation that followed immediately after.

The investigative team included two investigators from the Sheriff's Office, a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent and an investigator from District Attorney Courtney Lynch's Office, Gunter said.

(READ MORE: TBI investigating fatal shooting by Grundy County deputy)

Chief Deputy Brandon King, suspended in July on allegations by the commission that he had interfered with the booking process of an attempted murder suspect who was his cousin, was found not to have committed any criminal wrongdoing, Gunter said.

The investigative team also planned to probe allegations that another deputy lied when he told dispatchers he had conducted a traffic stop on a vehicle that he said fled and triggered a pursuit that ended on Lookout Mountain in Georgia. That officer, former Sgt. Shawn Norris, resigned after he was suspended, so no investigation could take place, Gunter said.

Gunter's appearance at Friday's commission meeting followed an investigative report presented in July that accused the Sheriff's Office of employing uncertified deputies -- including one assigned as a resource officer who sat in a chair in a school's office while the entry doors were propped open. Commission members in July said they were alarmed by Gunter's attitude during a visit to local schools and the Sheriff's Office earlier this year.

During the July meeting, Commission Chair Chad Partin, the Coffee County sheriff, said Gunter had been giving the commission an "I don't care attitude," and Franklin Police Chief and Commission Vice Chair Deborah Faulkner was critical of the lack of apparent concern on Gunter's part about commission regulations and the fact that school doors were being left open when state agencies are trying to improve school safety.

"This is appalling," Faulkner said in July. "This is ridiculous. It's outrageous, and he's like thumbing his nose at the rules and regulations of the commission."

(READ MORE: Grundy County officers indicted for civil rights offenses)

Those remarks drew Gunter's apology Friday.

The lack of school resource officers, Gunter said, has been settled through a successful memorandum of understanding with county schools for the coming school year. All schools now have certified resource officers, he said. Gunter has spent most of his career as a school resource officer and knows their value and necessity, he said.

Gunter and commissioners also discussed some problematic employment backgrounds among some new hires and an overall shortage of certified officers. The sheriff agreed the situation was "embarrassing."

At the conclusion of the commission's discussion on the matter Friday, Gunter said the audit and investigation -- as well as Friday's commission meeting -- had been a learning experience that he would apply to make improvements. He said he was also going to seek help from the University of Tennessee System's County Technical Assistance Service.

Gunter set a timeline for completing needed improvements at 14 to 30 days, although some commissioners were dubious so much could be done in so little time. Gunter promised to appear for the commission's Sept. 14 meeting to provide a status update.

Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569.