About 10 years ago, Court TV had a reality show called "Inside Cell Block F." It featured Sheriff Gerald Hege of Davidson County, N.C. Hege drove a souped-up Chevy Impala with a black widow spider design on the hood, he dressed in BDUs and combat boots, he carried an MP5 subgun as his service weapon, and he took a no-nonsense approach to incarceration.
Hege styled his persona after two of his heroes: Buford Pusser of "Walking Tall" fame and Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz. Unfortunately, Hege didn't learn a very important lesson from his role models: A tough sheriff has to be honest. In 2003, Hege was charged with 15 felonies, including embezzlement and obstruction of justice. Hege accepted a plea bargain. He is now off probation and can run for public office.
This is not a screed about Hege. He's been punished.
It's a screed about electing law enforcement officials, including sheriffs and district attorneys. This has become a recipe for disaster.
All sheriffs and district attorneys are not corrupt. There are many really good ones and a few great ones.
But the concept of electing people to serve in these powerful posts is rife with the potential for abuse of power, cronyism, corruption, and pandering. Politics is a dirty game fueled by money. The people who give big money to candidates expect something in return. And the candidates themselves can be incompetent, unqualified, and just full of themselves.
Consider the case of outgoing Orleans Parrish District Attorney Eddie Jordan. The first thing this guy did upon taking office was to arbitrarily fire members of his staff because they were white. This wasn't a case of reverse discrimination; it was a purge by an incompetent tinpot dictator. Jordan's former staff filed suit and was awarded $3.4 million for job discrimination.
In the O.J. Simpson murder case, Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti chose not to seek the death penalty, setting the tone for all future celebrity murder trials in his jurisdiction. Simpson would now be on death row if Garcetti hadn't been worried about voter opinion when he made that decision. Statistics show that jurors selected for death penalty cases are much more likely to convict because they must agree to consider the death penalty.
Then there's the case of the most-reviled man in recent North Carolina history: former Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong. Now disbarred for prosecutorial misconduct, Nifong was running for re-election when an African-American stripper accused white members of the Duke University lacrosse team of rape.
In some ways the case was a godsend for a Durham district attorney running for re-election. Durham has a sizable black population and even white residents of the city tend to view Duke University students as rich Yankee brats who need to be taken down a peg or two. So going after the Duke lacrosse players hammer and tong was a popular decision with the local voters. Unfortunately, Nifong was so obsessed with getting re-elected that he buried exculpatory evidence.
Perhaps the worst thing about electing law enforcement officials is that you get unqualified and incompetent political hacks who can win elections but have no business doing the job. There are some jurisdictions in this country where I could run for sheriff if I had the political clout. I have never worn a badge, and I have no business running a law enforcement agency.
And by the way, neither does Shaquille O'Neal. Shaq, we love you, man, but you are a basketball player not a cop, regardless of your reserve status. Please abandon your oft-discussed plan to run for sheriff when you retire from the NBA. You need to leave law enforcement administration to guys who have really worked the streets. If you win, you will only win on your celebrity and your political clout, not your competence.
It's time to take sheriff and district attorney off of the ballot. Let's hire the most qualified people to do these jobs instead of electing the most ambitious and politically connected.