With county elections on the horizon—Election Day is slated for Thursday, Aug. 7—Rutherford County voters will soon decide if they will keep current Sheriff Robert Arnold in office for another four years, or if a new leader will assume the top position at the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office.
Arnold won the 2010 vote over longtime Sheriff Truman Jones, and entered office with a spirit of “cleaning house”; one of his first acts as sheriff was firing Det. Ron Killings, who ran over and killed a young girl while driving his patrol car.
Although Killings was not convicted of a crime for the 2008 incident, witnesses say he disposed of a liquor bottle immediately after the accident, and that he far exceeded the speed limit.
Sheriff Jones reinstated Killings to the force, amidst some controversy. But in one of his first acts in office, Arnold dismissed Killings from the RCSO, following through on one of his campaign promises.
However, many of Arnold’s critics say he has not maintained a satisfactory level of professionalism and control over his staff throughout his first term.
He defended Deputy A.J. Ross after a controversial traffic stop, captured on video, that prompted enormous public outcry. Many in the area have debated that incident at great length, saying that Ross was provoked, the driver should have rolled his window down, Ross lost his temper, the basis for the vehicle search was questionable, and so forth.
But not long after that happened, another controversial video surfaced of another deputy, James Vanderveer, pepper-spraying a partially restrained man in custody inside of the jail.
Many labeled that incident as downright police brutality and filled Internet message boards and comment fields with words such as “torture,” “cruel and unusual punishment” and “assault,” adding that the members of the RCSO were “thugs,” “sadists,” “miscreants” and “bullies.”
Vanderveer, who also happens to be Arnold’s nephew (and possesses a DUI charge and controversy in his past), remains in the employ of the department.
The sheriff now faces challenges from three other candidates, Democrat Bill Kennedy and independents Dale Armour and Jim Tramel, in the 2014 election.
“If A.J. Ross and James Vanderveer were under my watch, they would be terminated,” sheriff candidate Tramel said, going on to state that he even felt Vanderveer should face criminal charges for his actions.
These incidents drew international attention to Rutherford County and a firestorm of comments and debates, even from many law enforcement communities.
A “Fire Robert Arnold” Facebook page has sprung up where those who desire a new sheriff discuss a wide variety of grievances against Arnold and company.
Some criticize him for allowing a musical group called the Secret Sisters to record their music video in the jail (alongside RCSO employees clad in inmate wear, clapping along).
Others point to Arnold’s special-education diploma from Oakland High School as his highest level of education.
Arnold, who has dyslexia and struggles with written language, counters that point, saying that overcoming his learning challenges demonstrate determination and resolve to fight adversity; American heroes like John F. Kennedy, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison all battled dyslexia, and his journey proves he can triumph over difficult circumstances. His political opponents nearly removed Arnold from the 2010 ballot altogether over the issue of his diploma.
That matter aside, however, Bill Kennedy said the current sheriff’s financial management and leadership skills are not sufficient for the post of Rutherford County Sheriff.
Over the past four years, the expenditures for the sheriff’s department and jail have skyrocketed. According to county budget documents, sheriff’s department and jail expenditures were approximately $28 million for fiscal year 2009–2010, Jones’ final year in office. Just four years later, that amount tops $38 million, estimated expenditures for 2013–14.
Arnold, like plenty of other politicians, throws around the word “conservative” on the campaign trail, but once elected follows a pattern of outrageous spending; the RCSO and jail budget has increased $10 million, or a 35 percent increase.
Tramel points out that this increased spending does not equate to increased protection.
“He took six guys off patrol and gave them IT positions!” Tramel said.
Other critics of the current sheriff raise ethical questions about his plagiarised campaign website.
In 2010, Arnold’s site, sheriffrobertarnold.com, contained a platform directly lifted from a Georgia sheriff candidate’s campaign wording, including a suggestion to create a public safety council with the local “Chief Marshall” and “Chief of School Police,” positions that do not exist in Rutherford County.
The borrowed language was followed by a somewhat grammatically awkward reference to “integrity,” and the site stated the material was copyright Robert Arnold for Sheriff and powered by Navigation Advertising.
In the latest bout of online practices with questionable ethics, Arnold’s Chief Deputy of Administration Joe Russell (who also happens to be the husband of perhaps-soon-to-be-former Administrator of Elections Nicole Lester), bought dozens of domain names containing the names of candidates Bill Kennedy and Mike Fitzhugh (who has since dropped out of the race).
In a move somewhere in the grey area between savvy campaigning and unethical cybersquatting, Russell said he’d sell his investment property URLs to the candidates if the price was right.
Kennedy, who expressed disappointment in settling on the 29-character billkennedyforsheriff2014.com, said he is considering filing an ethics complaint in regard to the matter.
Arnold’s supporters point to such “conservative” policies as his eliminating ketchup and other condiments from inmates’ diets, and now having them out working next to the county jail in the Garden of Hope. The office has used inmate labor for various other work as well, both inside the jail and around the community.
But Kennedy and Tramel both have trouble seeing these as anything more than token moves for good PR; granted, neither had a good experience working under Arnold.
In June of last year, Arnold terminated Jim Tramel’s longtime employment with the sheriff’s 0ffice.
Tramel said the move was nothing more than a politically motivated firing of someone who intended to run for the public office that his boss happened to hold.
Arnold did not link Tramel’s termination to his plans to run for sheriff, but rather cited RCSO Standard Operating Procedure No. 617, which deals with sexual harassment, stating that Tramel spread rumors of a sexual nature about other employees, and failed “to maintain satisfactory and harmonious working relationships with fellow employees.”
Whatever went down, it motivated Tramel to file a federal lawsuit, which is still pending after numerous depositions were heard.
“If he violates my rights, a fellow law enforcement officer, think about what he can do to you,” Tramel told a local voter.
Candidate Bill Kennedy also had a rocky exit from the RCSO under Arnold’s tenure.
“I spent 19 years under Sheriff (Truman) Jones,” Kennedy said. “The current sheriff was my subordinate.”
Numerous on-the-job instances and reprimands culminated with an episode at La Vergne High School in 2009 in which Arnold failed to investigate a report of a weapon, Kennedy said.
Kennedy had seen enough from the school resource officer.
“I recommended to the sheriff that he (Arnold) be terminated,” Kennedy said. “He was the only subordinate officer that I have ever recommended termination.”
After Arnold won the sheriff job in 2010, he did not technically fire Kennedy, but “he told me I could go back and make biscuits,” the Democratic candidate said.
Not wanting to see lunch duty at 940 as the result of his 19-year law enforcement career, Kennedy went to work for the Lebanon Police Department, and while there earned his masters degree at Cumberland University in public service administration.
“At the time it hurt, but it turned out to be a godsend,” Kennedy said regarding leaving the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office. “It made me a better employee, it made me better academically.”
The LPD is a great place to work, “but I want to come home,” said the candidate, who still resides in Rutherford County. “I am the most qualified, honest and professional candidate for the job.”
He assures voters he will rein in the spending and bring the overtime and uniform expenditures under control.
“The taxpayers deserve someone who is a good steward of their money,” he said. “Why in the world do you need more uniform money?
“I’m afraid our law enforcement community has this paramilitary ‘us against them’ mentality,” Kennedy continued. “Our job is to protect and serve the community, not have this military-like presence.”
Tramel echoes that, saying the “threatening and hostile work environment” and “frivolous spending” need to be corrected, as does the behavior of many of the department’s employees.
“People are asking questions about 5-year and 10-year plans; I can’t even get to five years and 10 years out, there are so many problems facing the sheriff’s office right now,” Tramel said.
From Phil Brooks losing his firearm, twice, and Arnold instructing him to lie about it, to Jacoby O’Gwynn purchasing ammunition with the sheriff’s office discount and reselling it to gun ranges and individuals, from jailer Drew Gammon’s statutory rape charges to Luis Flores trafficking cocaine, a “criminal mindset” and serious lack of professionalism has taken over the RCSO, Tramel said. The department is becoming overrun with criminals, he said.
“If you like this kind of behavior, vote (Arnold) back in,” Tramel said. “If not, don’t.”
“I know I’ve overwhelmed a lot of people (with all of the stories of corruption and crime within the department),” Tramel said, but he said the “transparency” that Arnold promised should be a real thing that residents of Rutherford County demand of their leaders, and not just a political buzzword.
And be on the lookout, he said; another former employee is preparing to file yet another suit against Arnold.
Tramel said that, bottom line, he wants voters to be involved, to look at the issues, to view the recent candidate forum, to listen to the candidates and look at their track records, and make an educated decision at the polls.
“Just watch it, you decide,” Tramel said of the forum video:
Early voting begins on July 18. For more information on local elections, visit rutherfordcountytn.gov/election.
For more information on the candidates, visit: