Pulaski County Sheriff Jimmy Bench talked with the Daily Guide Tuesday morning about his first year in office and what he would like to see in 2018.
Bench has faced some unusual challenges that prior sheriffs haven't had to face in recent memory such as stepping in to fulfill the coroner's role and tackling a fresh new budget thanks to passing of the law enforcement tax. When asked how he felt his first year went, Bench was candid.
"It went pretty good. I got some stumbling blocks," Bench said referring to the budget for the new jail and having to step in as coroner.
On his personal performance and how he felt he did, Bench said, "Not as good as I wanted to do because of the things that got in my way and the things that have happened, you know. I did get new deputies hired. I got three new deputies, two correction officers, one full-time detective, and an evidence technician... That's quite a bit more staff which enables me to perform better, the Sheriff's Department performs better, and everything goes smoother."
When asked about what he felt the most positive thing the Sheriff's Department has done this year, Bench pointed to community outreach, more patrol, and promoting community policing as the most positive things.
Bench was especially proud of the the department's efforts get more patrolling accomplished in the rural areas and back roads of Pulaski County. He said he felt that officers being present in certain areas helps reduce crime.
"Any time that you're criminals see law enforcement on a road that they're on, they try to avoid that area. That's the reason why we have more patrol in those rural areas, especially in the trouble spots... I want to let them know I'm watching them and all they have to do is goof up one time and I've got them," Bench said.
2017 wasn't without challenges for Bench and the Sheriff's Department. When asked what he thought the biggest challenge of the year has been, Bench said it was preparing to build the new jail. The decisions about the jail and planning have been in the works since the day Bench took office on January 1, 2017. From budgeting, to making plans, and working with the task force, as well as doing the actual job of being sheriff have been a challenge, Bench said.
Bench said he wished that there had been more time in 2017 to do more community outreach for him personally, but he was unable to due to his duties filling in as Pulaski County Coroner, until the governor appoints a new one, and working on issues pertaining to the building of a new jail.
Bench went on to discuss aspects of building the new jail that he isn't happy with, saying that the information used to get the tax passed and begin the process of building a new jail were a little outdated.
"I don't like the fact that it was based on a study five years ago, whereas the labor rate was a lot less, prevailing wage was not a factor, now prevailing wage is a factor and now the jail is going to cost double what it was then," Bench said.
Bench expressed concerns that because the cost of building the new jail is so much more than it originally was expected that he may have trouble finding the money in a budget to staff the new jail. On a positive note, he did say that the department is always looking for grants, the fact that the jail will be able to take on federal prisoners, as well as prisoners from surrounding counties to help augment the cost.
When asked how he feels the department has changed or grown in the year that he has been in office, Bench said he felt the selection process has improved and he has a "better quality of deputies."
"Their philosophy on being a deputy is more down to what it's supposed to be now as opposed to getting out there, getting down and arresting people, and getting a little overzealous on their take-downs of people. I try to give all of our deputies the understanding that these are just people just like you or your family. Treat everybody like you want to be treated," Bench said.
Bench pointed to his deep roots in the county and the community as an important aspect of how he runs the Sheriff's Department. He said he is a member of the community that is from here and feels the department should be more conscious of the community it serves.
He also pointed to his current staff as an important part of getting the job done and said he feels like he has a good, supportive staff, especially his Chief Deputy Linda Burgess and his Administrative Assistant Kim Luttrell. Bench credited them and the rest of his staff with allowing him to do the job better.
Looking forward to 2018, Bench said he would like to continue to build a better relationship between law enforcement and the public, and the public with one another. Bench pointed to a common situation where neighbors are not getting along and call the sheriff's office on one another.
Bench said he wants to see situations like that worked out without formal law enforcement involvement. He said he's willing to facilitate between neighbors and help them solve things amicably where everyone can walk away "feeling like they won." He said he felt like this was a better way most of the time.
"I want more community policing. I want to go to the schools more," Bench said.