Fred Phillips, a lifelong lawman who served Johnson City, Washington County and the state for more than 40 years, died Thursday, area officials confirmed.
Phillips, 72, Jonesborough, also had a big impact on law enforcement training when he served as director of the state’s Law Enforcement Training Academy in Nashville.
“The law enforcement community lost a good friend today. Fred dedicated his life to his family and to public service. There was no finer man and friend,” said Sheriff Ed Graybeal in a press release. “Our prayers go out to his family during this difficult time.”
Chief Operating Officer at the sheriff’s office, Leighta Laitinen, said “there will never be another like him.” She worked under Phillips prior to Graybeal’s appointment in 2003.
Phillips started his law enforcement career in 1964 and worked his way up through the ranks until being named police chief in 1981. He was appointed in 1990 to director of public safety for the city. During that time officers were dual-trained as firefighters and Phillips oversaw operation of both departments.
“This is indeed very sad news regarding Fred Phillips’ passing. He was an outstanding public servant in law enforcement in so many capacities,” said Jeff Anderson, who served on the city commission and as mayor in the mid-1990s.
“So much of the professional quality of law enforcement we have today in Johnson City and Washington County as well is due to Fred Phillips’ leadership.”
When Phillips retired from the city, already with a full career under his belt, he served at the Law Enforcement Training Academy in Nashville and was later named the deputy state safety commissioner.
Still, he continued to work in the field he loved by running for sheriff of Washington County in 1994. He won that election and the next one in 2002.
It was under Phillips’ lead in his first term that the new Washington County Detention Center was built.
In December 2002, after being elected sheriff in August that year, Phillips accepted the appointment from then-Gov. Phil Bredesen as state safety commissioner. He left that post in December 2005.
During an unsuccessful bid for the 7th District House of Representatives, Phillips gave insight to at least one of his philosophies.
“I’m one of those people who believes that no matter who you are, you’re supposed to work hard for your community every single day of your life,” Phillips told the Press in a 2006 interview.
“That’s why I believe a whole lot of people see me as Fred, their neighbor, rather than somebody in politics,” he said.
John Lowry, retired Johnson City police chief, said there’s no way to count the number of people in law enforcement who Phillips helped along the way.
“Fred was a policeman’s policeman,” Lowry said.
“I don’t care where you went across the state of Tennessee you couldn’t go anywhere — from Mountain City to Memphis — that people didn’t know Fred Phillips,” Lowry said.
The two men knew each other for 40 years. Some of that time Phillips was Lowry’s commanding officer and would later become a counterpart in law enforcement when Phillips was elected sheriff.
“Things that he started are still in play at the police department and will be from now on,” he said. “His thing was to treat people professionally and treat the public like you would want to be treated.”
“I loved the man,” Lowry said.
Johnson City Police Chief Mark Sirois also said he was saddened to hear of Phillips’ death.
“Over the years I got to know Fred Phillips professionally and as a person. One thing that always struck me about him was his professionalism, but also his common sense approach,” Sirois said.
“He meant a lot to the people of of this city, the county and also the state. He has a long list of accomplishments he left behind at the Johnson City Police Department, some of the things we’re still practicing today.”
Some of Phillips’ accolades include serving on the National Sheriff’s Association’s board of directors and serving as president of the Tennessee Sheriff’s Association in 1998 and 1999 and was a member of the Tennessee Chief’s Association. He was elected Sheriff of the Year in 1999. He also served on the Washington County 911 board.
Dillow-Taylor Funeral Home & Cremation Services, is handling the funeral arrangements, which are incomplete at this time.