ERWIN — Tuesday will mark the one-year anniversary of Mike Hensley’s appointment to the office of Unicoi County sheriff by the Unicoi County Commission, and through the challenges and successes of the past 12 months, Hensley said the state of the sheriff’s department at this time is very positive.
The months leading up to Hensley’s appointment were turbulent times for the sheriff’s department. Former sheriff Kent Harris had been charged with 11 felonies, and Harris resigned from the office March 1, citing injuries he suffered in a fall from the roof of the Unicoi County Jail in August 2010.
Four men sought the commission’s appointment to fill the office until the August general election. After interviewing each of the candidates on March 26, 2012, the commission opted to appoint Hensley, a Unicoi County native with approximately 30 years of area law enforcement experience.
Hensley said his immediate goal upon his appointment was boost the morale of the sheriff’s department’s officers and employees, restore integrity within the department and regain the public’s respect of the department. To accomplish this, Hensley said he put a strict chain of command in place, gave the department’s employees a “clean slate” with the new administration, and has stressed accountability and responsibility.
Things are now “back on track,” Hensley said. From the secretaries to the auxiliary and the officers to the investigators, Hensley said he is proud of those in the sheriff’s department and said the community has a department it should be proud of, as well.
“I’ve got a great department,” Hensley said. “I would put them up against anybody.”
Another issue affecting not only Unicoi County, but the entire region, that Hensley said he needed to quickly address was crimes related to drugs. At the time he was appointed, methamphetamine was a “epidemic” in the area, Hensley said. Among actions taken since his appointment to address the problem, Hensley said he has joined the First Judicial Drug Task Force and has an officer stationed with the agency. He has also re-established the sheriff’s department’s own narcotics division.
“Right now, I feel like, and everybody has told me, that it is a lot safer than it was a year ago,” Hensley said.
To bolster the safety of Unicoi County residents, Hensley said it was vital to shore up the sheriff’s department’s relationship with surrounding state, federal and municipal law enforcement agencies.
“We’ve got great working relationships with all agencies, and teamwork is what pays off,” Hensley said.
Other immediate challenges facing Hensley upon his appointment were accumulated overtime within the sheriff’s department, which he has worked to address. He said he also addressed the use of the department as a “training ground” by implementing a program in which new officers must remain with the department for two years. If the officers leaves on his or her own before then, he or she must reimburse the county for training academy costs. He said the department also reduced its budget.
Hensley said the protection of Unicoi County’s students and educators is also a priority of his. When the Unicoi County Schools system lost state grant funding last summer that was used to fund student resource officers at Unicoi County High School and Unicoi County Middle School, Hensley absorbed the costs of the officers into the sheriff’s department’s budget to prevent them from being lost.
After the December elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Hensley said he saw the need to further protect local students and teachers. He took the lead in implementing a countywide student resource officer program, and he worked with school officials, officials with the county’s three governmental bodies and the Erwin Police Department to ensure that a full-time, trained officer was placed in each of Unicoi County’s schools through the end of the school year.
“My job as sheriff is to protect every citizen of Unicoi County, and I felt like it was crucial that I put an officer in every school, not only for the kids, but for the teachers as well,” he said.
Hensley said the SRO program has the community’s backing, and he has “no doubt” that it will continue after the current school year ends.
Hensley’s “interim” tag was lifted in August, when he was elected by the citizens of Unicoi County to fill the office of sheriff through the remainder of Harris’ unexpired term, which ends in 2014. Serving as the interim sheriff between when he was appointed to the August election left Hensley with little time for politicking and campaigning, he said. Hensley said he had to let his work leading up to the election do the speaking for him.
“The main thing I’ve learned from experience ... if you do what you set out to do and you keep doing what you said you would do, most of the time people will take notice of that,” he said.
And although the 2014 election is more than a year away, Hensley said he has already set his sights on holding the office of sheriff for at least another four years.
“I fully intend to run in 2014 if my health holds with the good Lord’s will,” he said. “I put my trust in God. He’s my co-pilot. I would never be sitting where I’m at today if it hadn’t been for God.”
Hensley said he has also received a great deal of support from those within his department, particularly Chief Deputy Frank Rogers and Administrative Assistant Craig Masters. He said his family has also been a source of continual support.
“I have the best wife and family I could ever ask for,” Hensley said. “I couldn’t ask for any better woman than I’m married to. If there ever was an angel, she’s an angel. She’s been right there with me for support, as well as my family.”
Future challenges for the sheriff’s department include the upcoming relocation of the department’s administrative and investigative offices to the Unicoi County Jail Annex. Despite what’s on the horizon, Hensley said he would continue to maintain the rapport he has developed with Unicoi County residents and work for them in as efficient a manner as possible.
“You can’t be a 9 to 5 sheriff in Unicoi County,” he said. “There’s no way you can be a 9 to 5 sheriff in Unicoi County, and when John Q. Public wants to talk to the sheriff, they don’t want to talk to nobody else. They want to talk to you. And I assure you that I’ve done that, and I will continue to do that.”