State commission tells Grundy sheriff to fix problems or he could be out of office

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

The chairman of a state law enforcement training commission that identified and reviewed numerous problems at the Grundy County Sheriff's Office in July told the sheriff to fix issues by hiring certified officers who can work patrol, make arrests and testify in court or he could be out of a job.

"Sheriff, we're going to clean this act up or you're not going to be in office. That's what I'm telling you," Tennessee Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission Chair Chad Partin told Sheriff Heath Gunter near the end of the panel's monthly meeting Friday. "I'm going to extend the olive branch out to you as your neighboring sheriff and the closest sheriff that sits on this board to help you. But I'm tired of excuses, excuses, excuses, excuses, and I'll tell you what I'm really tired of: I'm tired of your citizens calling me. I have all I can do to put up with the citizens of Coffee County, and I can't be sheriff of Grundy County."

The commission doesn't have the power to remove a sheriff from office, but Partin said he'd received "a lot of calls" from Grundy County residents who were complaining about their Sheriff's Office. Many of the problems stem from ongoing staffing issues.

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"You have people working patrol in your county that your DA will not allow to sign a warrant or testify to anything in your courts. They do not need to be on patrol," Partin said. "I'm highly suggesting for the safety and sanity of the courts that you deal with this immediately."

Steve Strain, a longtime assistant district attorney in District Attorney General Courtney C. Lynch's office, said Lynch sent Gunter a letter to notify him about the officers.

"General Lynch sent a letter on several officers that we felt, because of Bradley-Giglio case law, that we could not use them in court," Strain said in a phone interview.

Strain was referring to a list — often called a "Brady list" — created in a prosecutor's office or law enforcement agency containing names and details of police officers who have had incidents of untruthfulness, criminal convictions or other matters placing their credibility in question, according to a definition on the International Association of Police Chiefs' website.

The DA's office has no authority over who signs a warrant, Strain said, noting only a magistrate can make that call.

Gunter, at the beginning of the meeting, outlined improvements made, personnel moves and work to get the department fully staffed. He described problems some applicants were having getting scheduled to go to the state's law enforcement academy.

Partin said he'd also heard reports private security had been hired at the courthouse, but Grundy County Mayor Michael Brady said that wasn't the case Friday in a phone interview.

Brady said the matter of a court officer — a position not funded in the budget — was on the agenda for discussion at a County Commission Law Enforcement Committee meeting Monday night.

At the close of Friday's commission meeting, Partin ordered Gunter and his administrators to check in with the commission and its investigators once a week to review information on any prospective new employees and an updated list of current employees.

Gunter appeared before the commission Friday to update progress on findings in a commission audit and investigation started almost a year ago and then follow-up visits in April. Gunter had also appeared at the August meeting for an update and apologized for the problems coming up in the first place. In July, the commission also had a long discussion of the issues in Grundy when Gunter didn't attend.

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At the start of the commission meeting Friday, Partin said information in an ongoing investigation developed since the commission's August meeting and review of Grundy's case showed little improvement regarding training and a lack of officers, though he noted there were improvements elsewhere.

Employment paperwork, pre-employment background checks and shortcomings in law enforcement training requirements identified earlier this year remain, Partin said. Even Gunter's own employment packet at the commission filed after he was elected sheriff was missing required paperwork.

Improvements have been made in the arrest and court process, Gunter told the commission, and issues have been addressed with off-duty officers working at The Caverns event venue on the west side of the county who will not work unless they have been certified. The Sheriff's Office was able to provide security at a recent trial using an investigator to fill the role, and the sheriff insisted he is continuing to work to get new officers vetted and certified.

Gunter's appearance at Friday's commission meeting stemmed from an investigative report presented in July that accused the Sheriff's Office of employing uncertified deputies — including one assigned as a school resource officer. Commission members in July said they were alarmed by Gunter's apparent attitude when investigators visited local schools and the Sheriff's Office earlier this year.

Gunter reported last month, and reiterated Friday, that he'd placed certified school resource officers in all county schools and was working to improve organization of his office.

On Friday, Partin directed two of Gunter's administrative officers present at Friday's meeting to work hard to help their sheriff get the department in order and to ask for assistance when they had questions.

Partin urged Gunter to seek help when he needed it from the commission, experienced sheriffs in neighboring counties or the commission officials involved in the investigation. He said the Tennessee Highway Patrol can also be called for backup when there's a shortage of certified officers for court.

Partin said Gunter needed to change his approach.

"The biggest problem I see is you're going to have to suck some of your pride up," Partin said. "You're going to have to reach out and call some of us for help."

Partin, who is also the sheriff in neighboring Coffee County where he said he has to ask for outside help sometimes, urged Gunter to come to his office for help from him and his staff.

"We're not perfect, none of us, but if we work together, it's going to succeed," he said.

Gunter was asked to return again for the October meeting to provide an update on progress.

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

  photo  Grundy County / Grundy County Sheriff Heath Gunter