It’s all relative: Sheriffs’ opinions on nepotism vary

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(WJHL) – In November 2018, Washington County, Tenn. Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant Eddie Graybeal received a “letter of review” — but no other disciplinary action — after reporting he had slapped a handcuffed arrestee. Would the outcome have been the same if Graybeal weren’t the sheriff’s son?

That question may never be answered, but it illuminates issues surrounding nepotism – the practice of family members working together in the same organization. WJHL interviewed eight area sheriffs, a criminal justice professor and a law enforcement consultant about the issue and found that nepotism, whether it involves relatives of the sheriff working in a department or simply co-workers who are related, is quite common in the region. None of the departments has a nepotism policy. A majority of sheriffs were wary of the constraints policies could impose, particularly in rural counties where they say it’s hard to find qualified applicants.

“Where nepotism becomes a problem is when somebody begins hiring people when they’re not qualified for the positions which they’re seeking,” Carter County, Tenn. Sheriff Dexter Lunceford said. “Or if they’re treated differently.”

Lou Reiter

Lou Reiter, a retired police officer and longtime law enforcement training and ethics consultant, conducted one of the few existing surveys regarding law enforcement nepotism for the Legal Liability Risk Management Institute. The 2010 survey found 71 percent of 2,700 respondents believed agencies should have written policies covering nepotism and 55 percent of respondents reporting nepotism or “fraternization” had been an employee issue in their agencies.

Reiter conducts seminars regularly and said he’s still finding anecdotally that few departments have policies. It’s employee issues, nepotism or otherwise, that tend to create big problems at sheriff’s and police departments, Reiter said.

“Chiefs are getting fired because they’re not minding the business inside the agency and they’re not handling personnel decisions properly, and usually there’s a whistleblower that comes out,” Reiter said in a phone interview.

Segment of an article summarizing a 2010 survey on nepotism in law enforcement.

Almost universally, the eight sheriffs interviewed for this story acknowledged nepotism’s potential pitfalls. But several said it’s difficult to avoid operating a department with some people related to one another.

“We have husbands, wives, we have brothers and sisters, we have cousins, nephews, uncles, aunts that work here at this department,” Greene County, Tenn. Sheriff Wesley Holt said.

Greene County Sheriff Wesley Holt

“Being a small county you’re going to hire those folks, if they meet the criteria, they pass the civil service test and stuff, then they’re going to be employed here because of their qualifications.”

Sullivan County, Tenn. Sheriff Jeff Cassidy agreed. “We have great employees here that are married to each other,” he said. “There’s not a thing wrong with that.”

Half the sheriffs, including Holt, also had one of their own relatives employed at their departments. In most of those cases, including Holt’s, the relative had been employed prior to the sheriff’s election.

Eric Stanton, who runs the criminal justice department at Northeast State Community College, said that’s a problem, albeit a common one. Most of the time, the problem is about perception, regardless of an individual’s competence or performance.

“When you’re in a position of public trust, especially in a tax funded position such as law enforcement and stuff of that nature, it can become a very slippery slope,” Stanton said. “Any type of nepotism in there becomes perception, not only from the public but also from the folks that work within that institution.”

Reiter said nepotism can create layers of problems — sometimes because issues are swept under the rug. “It’s not the issue of the familial relationship, it’s the issue that whoever’s in the position to blow the whistle or take adverse employment sanctions doesn’t have the fortitude to do so,” Reiter said. “They feel there will be retaliation by the top person.”

When perception meets problem

Eric Stanton, Northeast State CC criminal justice department

Sometimes the issue enters the public eye much more prominently. That happened in the days and weeks after WJHL anonymously received a video – 10 months after the incident – showing Eddie Graybeal slapping arrestee William Rawls on Nov. 9, 2018 in the sally port of Washington County’s detention center. Several days after WJHL’s Sept. 16, 2019 report on the video, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) opened an investigation. On Nov. 6, the TBI indicated Graybeal for assault and official misconduct indictments. Ed Graybeal suspended his son without pay the next day. Eddie Graybeal’s case has not yet been resolved.

“The court will determine where we go from here, but it is unfortunate,” said Stanton, who supports development and enforcement of nepotism policies in local law enforcement. “It’s put the sheriff in a very uncomfortable situation, it’s put his family in a very uncomfortable situation … and it’s put the whole department in a very uncomfortable situation.”

“Questions are going to be asked when people are related, and that’s completely understandable, because … it is public money, it’s taxpayer money, and these individuals are in positions of public trust, and we want to make sure that the people that the people that are in public trust are the best individuals for that position.”

‘Perception problem?’ Sheriffs’ opinions vary

Cases such as Graybeal’s point to nepotism’s problems, Fred Newman said just weeks before his retirement as Washington County, Va. sheriff. Washington County, Va., doesn’t have a nepotism policy, but Newman said he never would have allowed a relative of his to work at his department.

“I would just feel like it could create issues, especially from a disciplinary standpoint or possible promotion,” Newman said. “People either within or without the agency might suggest the promotion was made as a result of a personal relationship. Same issues with discipline. If discipline needed to be addressed … the perception could easily be that it was not handled in an appropriate manner.”

Eddie Graybeal reported his incident to Major Mark Page the next day. Though TBI later found the incident worthy of pursuing assault charges, the initial letter of review and counseling were the only disciplinary actions at the time. Chief Deputy Leighta Laitinen told WJHL that administrators didn’t refer the incident to the TBI or the District Attorney, but that favoritism played no role. “Had I thought this warranted more, I would have gone to the sheriff with more,” Laitinen said.

Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy

Sullivan County’s Cassidy said while he’d “never say never,” he can’t envision a situation where he’d allow his relative to work at the department. Even if a sheriff’s family member isn’t under his direct supervision, Cassidy said, if that person isn’t doing a good job the relationship could have a chilling effect on his supervisors’ handling of the matter.

“I think you’re always going to have that fear of retaliation,” Cassidy said. “If I report something – and this is the sheriff’s brother, sister – is my career here going to be on the line, or am I going to be looked at in a different light?’”

Hawkins County, Tenn. Sheriff Ronnie Lawson sees it differently. Lawson said he hired a nephew, who already had law enforcement experience and is now a narcotics officer. Lawson’s nephew reports to a lieutenant, who reports to the chief deputy, who reports to Lawson. Asked whether he believed the relationship created any potential issues, Lawson said, “None whatsoever. All my employees know the playing field’s level.”

Carter County’s Lunceford also has a relative who was hired after he took office in 2014. Lunceford said he wasn’t involved in the hiring process and never interviewed the worker, who’s in the IT department and has “done absolutely great.”

Smyth County, Va. Sheriff Chip Shuler’s sister-in-law is his administrative assistant, and one of his part-time dispatchers is a cousin (she reports to the communications sergeant). Shuler also said there were “no issues” when he worked alongside his father during the first nine years of his career.

Detective Sergeant Michelle Holt, left, and Sheriff Wes Holt, right, in a photo from Greene County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page.

Greene County’s Holt met his wife, Michelle, when both worked at the sheriff’s department. They had been married for many years when he won the 2018 sheriff’s election, and by that time Michelle Holt was a detective sergeant. Michelle Holt is not in a direct line of reporting to him, Holt said.

Holt and Carter County’s Lunceford both said their departments use the civil service process to remove favoritism from the hiring process. Applicants take the civil service test and are graded on that as well as educational attainment and prior law enforcement experience, Holt said. Those with the highest scores are put on a hiring eligibility list, which is strictly followed according to rank order, Holt said. Exceptions must be approved by the civil service board.

The survey says… it’s a problem

Stanton said that’s not enough, calling nepotism “a slippery slope.”

“Departments may do their best to have the chief executive remove himself or herself from the decision making, but still it’s perception, and are they truly removed?” Stanton said.

Nepotism may indeed be a slippery slope, but Reiter said his experience has shown the issue to be a complex one. Drafting a reasonable, workable written policy often isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Where policies exist, they run the gamut from extremely strict to relatively loose. Texas has a policy, Reiter wrote, that mandates that if two employees get married, one must resign. Some agencies prohibit members designated under a nepotism policy from involvement in a family member’s hiring, promotion, supervision, performance evaluation or disciplinary decisions.

Reiter noted an “extremely high volume of narrative responses” in the survey. Most of those, he wrote, “indicated real or perceived nepotism-related abuses in hiring, promotion and assignments.”

What’s the answer regionally?

Sheriffs said finding qualified people for a thankless job isn’t always easy in an area where pay is low – particularly in a strong economy. Hawkins County’s Lawson said his department has “huge turnover.” In addition to his own nephew working there, he has a husband-wife team (one is a patrol lieutenant, the other a school resource officer) and two brothers who both work there.

Reiter’s article noted that in rural areas where “there are few available quality candidates,” an inability to employ family members would eliminate qualified applicants. His opinion hasn’t changed since.

‘My advice to departments out there is, get a nepotism policy, enforce it, and stick to it.’

eric stanton, northeast state community college

“The written policy should basically be, you can’t prohibit them from being hired because in fact they may be the best qualified candidate that there is, ” Reiter said. “But I think you can set up some sort of procedures where they can’t be under the direct supervision, where they can’t be involved in the hiring process, where they can’t work the same shift, where they can’t be under the direct command and control of a person who has an intimate relationship or a family relationship.”

Lawson said propriety comes down to managing the chain of command and rank structure. Cassidy agreed, though he would refrain from hiring a relative. He doesn’t let family members supervisor other family members, but will consider references from staffers who have a family member applying for work at the department.

“I have no problem whatsoever hiring a family member after a good reference from another family member,” Cassidy said. “I just will not put them in direct supervision over them.”

Put it in writing, Stanton said. “My advice to departments out there is, get a nepotism policy, enforce it, and stick to it.” While that may be difficult in a small department, he said it’s the best solution – even if a good policy prevents family members who are related to the sheriff from working in the same department.

“People love this area and they don’t necessarily want to leave this area, but we have multiple departments in Upper East Tennessee where folks can go and work and use their knowledge, skills and abilities they’ve earned and go out here and do great things.”

Former Sheriff Fred Newman agreed with Stanton. Newman said he would support the state imposing nepotism policies on counties – even though a policy never was implemented at his department during his tenure. “I feel like if there aren’t any in place they need to be,” Newman said. “I’ve seen instances where it has created problems and I’ve seen cases where it has not. But I’d be supportive of that – I think it would benefit law enforcement in general.”

Reiter said it all comes down to personnel decision-making. “Policies aren’t going to resolve this issue,” he said. “What’s going to resolve the issue is simply to hold the persons responsible for their professional employment decision-making.”

He said law enforcement’s “code of silence” often extends beyond family relationships in what he called the “family of blue.”

“If we use your example of the guy who slapped the big dude in the sally port there, you know, it seems the system worked,” Reiter said. “Now would it have worked absent the leaked video? That’s the question you have to ask.”

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