JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – Johnson City Police Department (JCPD) Lt. Keith Sexton was already openly running for Washington County sheriff ahead of next year’s election when current chief lawman Ed Graybeal announced last week he’d retire Aug. 31 — a year ahead of his term’s end.
And while Graybeal has asked Washington County commissioners to appoint his chief deputy Leighta Laitinen to fulfill his term, Sexton told News Channel 11 he hopes the board will tap him for the post.
“I have purposely molded my career for this period of time,” Sexton said, adding that he’s planned for at least 20 years to run for sheriff once he became eligible for retirement.
“There’s not a part of police work that I haven’t touched, whether it be patrol, criminal investigations, drug enforcements, special operations,” the 52-year-old said. “So I did that purposely so that when this day come I would be prepared and I would have the needed skills and knowledge and abilities to be successful.”
Sexton, who currently oversees training at JCPD and also spent 17 years working for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), said there are a couple reasons he doesn’t think he should wait for next year’s election.
If appointed, Sexton said he would try to quickly change the level of communication between the department leadership and the county commission and other entities within the county government.
He said in his assessment there was “little to no communication” along those lines.
Sexton also said patrols need more deputies and officers on them.
“At times to this day there’s still shifts at night where they’re working 4, 5, 6 people. That’s unsafe for the deputies.”
He said typical shifts should have seven deputies, a canine officer, a sergeant and a lieutenant — and he thinks there’s enough money in the budget to make that happen.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but … having deputies that respond to calls and get there in a timely manner is of utmost importance and I think that can be done by reallocation of manpower.”
Because he was already planning to run in next spring’s Republican primary, Sexton already had a website established, sextonforsheriff.com. His signs have been proliferating since late last week.
And he’s not ashamed to say he’ll be lobbying commissioners, who have 120 days to appoint a replacement for Graybeal, on his own behalf.
“I sent them a letter explaining who I am for the ones especially that don’t know me and asking to speak with them. I want to be the sheriff of Washington County, not because of anything else other than I have a passion for law enforcement and I have a passion for public service.”
Sexton said he would “put my resume up against anyone around.”
He said he’d “given up a lot” to be a sheriff’s deputy and police officer for three decades, “and I’d do it again, tomorrow.”
He said he believes WCSO “needs to be listening to the county government.”
“If a commissioner wants to know where money went, he should be able to call the sheriff and say ‘hey, can we talk about this.’”
If a citizen wants to talk to the sheriff they ought to be able to set up a meeting and talk to them
“I understand a sheriff can’t talk to everybody, but send a representative and eventually as a sheriff I’d work to get back to everybody that wanted to talk to me.”
On the drug problem, leadership, and being ‘a uniform-wearing, law enforcement sheriff’
Sexton said he’s visited with citizens from every corner of the county, and that “the drug enforcement, drug problem is always brought up.”
He’s worked drug interdiction, including with the area drug task force, but said really getting at the problem is also a matter of adequate patrol staffing.
“I know how to work a drug investigation, but at the end of the day a lot of the drug enforcement can occur right there on patrol by a patrol officer if he’s well-trained,” Sexton said.
“It’s hard for an officer on patrol to get out and try to do drug interdiction when he’s running from call to call to call because the allocation of manpower just isn’t there.”
Sexton said the county’s meth problem is serious, with the “one-pot” lab days a thing of the past and crystal meth from “super labs” flooding in from the western U.S. and Mexico.
“You can go in any convenience store and stand there for about 15 or 20 minutes and you’ll see someone come in with an indicator of drug use – so yeah, it’s a serious problem and it will be one of my priorities to address that.”
Sexton said that doesn’t mean he lacks empathy for people caught in addiction.
“Addiction grabs ahold of people and it just takes them down,” he said. “I come from a family that has been touched from addiction and alcoholism. I know what it is.”
He said programs that promote recovery can be a better alternative than jail in the right circumstance.
“They get arrested for a drug crime. They’re still an addict when they come out so they go right back to it.
“I don’t think it’s wise to waste taxpayer dollars on leaving someone in jail if we can keep them out of there. It’s very expensive to house inmates, so if there’s a way and there’s a program that promotes recovery so to speak, I’m all for that.”
Sexton said he’s developed a lot of friendships over the years in the area law enforcement community. Asked if there’s an area department he might look to as a model, Sexton mentioned a longtime professional relationship with Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy.
“I think he sets a good model for a sheriff and it’s the same model that I’ve talked about for years,” Sexton said. “I’ll be a uniform-wearing, law-enforcement sheriff. I think your leadership should always set the example.”
He said he believes he can improve morale at the department.
“If the leadership is not promoting a positive atmosphere then the subordinates are not going to have a positive attitude.
“You always have to be firm, fair and consistent in everything you do, and in 30 years that has served me well in making decisions related to the law, enforcing the law, and my experience in supervision.”
He said he has leadership experience in stressful, real world environments, including commanding the SWAT teams at both WCSO and now JCPD.
“I’ve been a patrol lieutenant in both departments – there’s really not a facet of law enforcement that I haven’t touched and I’ve been successful in every area that I’ve been in.”
Sexton doesn’t appear to lack confidence and he said there’s no point in waiting on the election if commissioners will appoint him.
“If I have an opportunity to become the sheriff of Washington County earlier than the primary and the election, I’m going to jump on it. I’m ready.
“What kind of leader would I be if I’m not willing to step out and take the initiative, and I do think that there needs to be a change.”