published Thursday, April 26th, 2012

The sheriff's favoritism

There are times when Sheriff Jim Hammond appears to relish talking tough, as he did recently when he said police officers should be ready to run young men in black gangs out of town, or put them in jail, or "send them to the funeral home." When he came under criticism for that remark -- and the possibility that it might provoke a higher level of gun violence -- he emphasized that he meant it.

But when it comes to a friend and former sheriff's deputy who was sent to prison for five years for selling contraband to jail inmates and laundering money on Hammond's watch as a former chief deputy in the 1990s, Hammond is all about forgiveness and help. He showed that in the wake of his friend's most recent scrape with the law.

Hammond's friend in this case, Lonnie R. Hood, was arrested last Dec. 31 on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest after a traffic incident on Hamilton Place Boulevard. As this paper's reporter Ansley Haman learned from police reports, Hammond called the county jail, which he oversees, to ask that Hood call him. Then the sheriff called the magistrate on duty for bond hearings, Sharetta Smith, to ask her to release Hood on his recognizance. Smith refused, and set bonds of $1,500 and $500 on the charges.

When Hood was ordered by General Sessions Judge Clarence Shattuck in March to serve seven days of community service, Hammond's office requested that Hood be allowed to work those days in the sheriff's office. When word of his favoritism was leaked by insiders who apparently found Hammond's favoritism questionable, Hammond said it was probably leaked by deputies who "can't forgive and forget" and weren't "man enough to tell me to my face."

In fact, deputies who served in the sheriff department's when Hammond was chief deputy -- and in charge of the jail, under former Sheriff H.Q. Evatt -- might well consider Hammond's special concern for Hood inappropriate for the taint Hood caused the department.

Hammond, who ran for election as sheriff upon Evatt's retirement, lost the sheriff's election in 1994 to John Cupp, who subsequently called on the FBI to investigate suspected corruption in administration of the jail and the county penal farm. Hood was later convicted of overseeing an illegal enterprise in the jail during the Evatt/Hammond tenure to sell steroids, tobacco and other items to inmates at exorbitant costs, and with laundering around $1 million.

When Hood finally entered his guilty plea in 1998, Hammond commented that he was "disappointed" in Hood. Hood responded, "A man who lives in a glass house should not throw stones." Asked if he was referring to the legal problem of Hammond's daughter in the stabbing death of a man in her apartment, Hood said, "no." "I'm sure you can figure out what I mean. That's all I am going to say about it for now." If his comment raised questions, they went unanswered.

Hammond, who changed his political affiliation from the Democratic Party to the GOP before he ran and finally won election as sheriff in 2008, took on Hood, then a contractor, as a volunteer in his campaign. When he encountered political flack in that election cycle for Hood's help in his campaign due to his criminal past, Hammond stood by Hood as a man who had served his term, rehabilitated his life and earned his trust.

That may well be an admirable foundation for their relationship and Hammond's continued interest in helping Hood. Given the unforgotten taint of Hood's past in the sheriff's department, however, Hammond's favoritism and intervention in behalf of Hood recently does appear inappropriate. If Hammond showed equal concern for young black men drawn into gangs, it might be better understood.

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