In a lunch conversation July 27, 2012, with Albany Herald Editor Jim Hendricks at downtown’s Cafe 230, Dougherty County Sheriff Kevin Sproul emphasizes the importance of reaching youth early to divert them from what can be a disastrous direction in life. Helping young people has been a driving force for Sproul for much of his nearly 30-year law enforcement career.
Dougherty County Sheriff Kevin Sproul talks about getting into law enforcement, the importance of listening, the pain he felt in the pit of his stomach over the Aurora, Colo., shootings and the story behind that trademark white hat.
It’s late morning the Friday before the primary elections. The folks at Cafe 230 in downtown Albany pull back the metal gates that protect the glass door and windows, and open for lunch.
Normally this close to an election day in Southwest Georgia, your chances of getting a sitting sheriff who’s up for re-election to break away just to have lunch with you are pretty slim. Running the office and campaigning for office pretty much eats up all their waking hours. Fortunately, Dougherty County Sheriff Kevin Sproul had no opposition on the ballot and graciously agreed to carve out some time for me.
Cafe 230, located downtown at 230 W. Broad Ave., was a men’s clothing store when I was growing up. The two-story building has seen several incarnations since, including the original home for the Harvest Moon restaurant.
What is ‘A Table With a View’?
“A Table With a View” is a new feature that starts today in The Albany Herald. What we do is invite someone interesting from the community out to lunch.
The person who is interviewed chooses the place. We record the lunch conversation and share what we talked about with our readers — that’s the view part. We also include a menu of what we had for lunch and the cost.
We plan for this to be a twice-monthly feature in our SouthView section. If you have a suggestion for someone you might want to “share lunch” with, give us a call at the newsroom (229-888-9344) or email us at email@example.com.
Normally when I go to a restaurant and have a choice of tables, I use what I call the Deadwood Selection Method — I pick a table with a clear view of entrances and exits, preferably with a seat that has a solid wall behind.
A table in the back near the stairs was my first choice, but I figured that since I was sitting with the county’s top elected law enforcement official, I’d be OK with one of the dark, wooden booths that line the brick east wall of the restaurant, which contrasts in color and texture with the misty blue-green west wall.
Sproul came in promptly at 11 o’clock, spotted me and walked over. I asked him if the booth was OK. He suggested the table I originally looked at, one that had a clear view of everything. “We’re going to move to my usual spot,” he mentioned to the staff.
Cafe 230 has two entrees that vary by the day — Friday was fried fish or grilled chicken tenders. We decided to order from the sandwich menu — Sproul got the homemade chicken salad sandwich on grilled toast; I opted for the Downtown Burger, which comes with one of my favorite things about Cafe 230, a fried green tomato — and we helped ourselves to salads from the bar. He stopped and bowed his head, silently returning thanks before we started eating.
I told the sheriff I was happy he was able to meet with me for the launch of this new series in The Herald. I realized I benefited from three factors: no big crime had just broken out, he wasn’t in the middle of a hot re-election campaign and sheriffs have to eat lunch, too.
A DARK NIGHT
Sproul, whose deep religious convictions became evident has the conversation progressed, said he was humble and honored in that respect. In 2008, he said, he was one of 46 first-time sheriffs-elect who were taking training. Out of that group, he was one of only 18 who didn’t face opposition at the voting booth this year.
“I’m in my fourth year here of my first term without an opposition in the primary,” he said. “I’m very grateful for that, very thankful to the citizens that they feel like the office that I have held, that the employees of that office, have served this community to the best of our ability so that no one stepped up to run against me. ... I depend on my faith a lot, and I’m very fortunate that God’s blessed me with the ability that he’s given me to do my job and to surround me with some awesome people.”
When we were changing tables, the subject of the shootings at the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” at the theater in Aurora, Colo., came up, as you might expect. I asked Sproul how anyone could ever be prepared for something like that, a case in which an armored assailant carrying tear gas and automatic weapons opens fire. While there’s a good deal of talk about how armed patrons might have responded, it would take an incredibly lucky shot to stop an armored gunman who has 6,000 rounds of ammunition. Add the tear gas, and the chances of a person with just a handgun successfully fending off that type of attack are even worse.
“I was telling you before we began to eat that when I go to a movie theater, I always sit on the back row and I’m always checking out the audience, no matter what kind of movie I’m there to see,” the sheriff said. “It’s like, OK, what happens if something should happen?
“I never think about if the shooter comes in dressed up and just stands in front of the screen and opens up fire. How would you even prepare for that? I hope and pray we’re prepared for something like that to the best of our abilities, but you can’t put a policeman in every theater, every picture show. You can’t put a policeman on every corner of every street, you know. It’s a very tough thing, a very tough challenge.”
The local implications of what happened at that midnight theater massacre hit him hard, Sproul said, recalling that the feeling it gave him was a familiar one, though from a much different circumstance.
“I tried boxing in middle school and found out I was a little slow at it,” he said. “After I took a few blows to the abdomen, I thought, ‘You know, I’d thought all I had to do was cover my head and I’d be safe.’ I guess I had that same hurting feeling in the pit of my stomach when I heard ... it was like I got hit in the gut. And it’s like you say, I did think how prepared are we here in Albany for something like that?
“I reference it back to 1994 when I was in the shower a little after five in the morning, got a call that said you need to report to the bridge on Philema Road and don’t go into the office. And, of course, the flood of ‘94 was hitting us at that time. ... None of us had ever seen such an event. ... I can remember as a kid it always flooding on Front Street, where they had some homes down here where the Civic Center is at. You’d always see water come up. We never saw water come up to what it was that time.
“We weren’t ready there, as a community, for a 500-year flood, so how can you even imagine being ready for that (shooting)? How can you train for that? We have specialized training where we try to prepare for horrific events. Since I’ve been sheriff, I’ve met with Phoebe Putney Hospital officials and we’ve had plans in case something should happen there, but to the magnitude of a shooter being fully covered with gear on to prevent you from hitting him and just opening fire with these enormous clips that he had in his guns to kill these individuals and wound them ...” His voice trails off.
CRIME PREVENTION MINDSET
The catastrophic events, we’ve learned over the years, are just that. I suggested, however, that the problems we’re facing in Albany and Southwest Georgia aren’t so momentous. I went back to a conversation I read in a book or had seen in a movie between a wife and her husband who was spending too much time at work and not enough at their marriage.
The woman asks her husband if he’d die for her. He says that of course he would. She replies that he’s unlikely to ever be called upon to do that, but he was making smaller decisions — the ones we all make on a daily basis — to put work ahead of their marriage, and those decisions were building up, causing them to drift apart.
Did Sproul see a similar scenario holding for Albany, for society? A situation where it is not destroyed by a big bang, but by a slow erosion that rusts away at the edges of society on a daily basis?
Sproul recalled that his family moved to Albany in 1965 when his Marine father was assigned to Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany. They lived in the Valencia Drive and West Broad Avenue area. His father “never locked the car up,” Sproul said, comparing that to today when people lock up everything, bar windows and are afraid to go out of their homes at night.
“It’s scary to think in 40 years or so we’ve changed that much, and how much more it can change,” he said.
“My mindset over the years has been that I came from a preventative type background working in the sheriff’s office,” he noted, adding that he started out working in the jail, then serving warrants and in court. That was a turning point, or the start of it, in his professional life.
“I kept thinking as I stood in the courtroom or as I knocked on the door to serve a warrant, ‘This is the third time we’ve seen this guy.’ Or the fifth time,” Sproul said. “How many times do we have to arrest this individual before he blows up and hurts himself or somebody else? I thought there’s got to be a better way.”
Sproul found new focus when two influences converged in his personal and professional lives in 1990-91. He had known Frank Sumner since he had been an umpire when Sproul played baseball. Sumner, under his Deputy Dawg alter ego, visited schools throughout Southwest Georgia to talk to students about the dangers of drugs and other crime, advocating for children’s rights and protection.
230 W. Broad Ave., downtown Albany
Open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sundays-Fridays
Salad, chicken salad sandwich on toasted bread, fries — $7.25
Water — no charge
Salad, Downtown Burger on bun, fries — $7.50
Unsweet tea — $1.75
Total (including tax) — $17.66
I particularly enjoy the fried green tomato on the Downtown Burger. Sheriff Sproul described the chicken salad sandwich as “delicious.” The meals also come with soup and some tempting desserts — if you have room for it.
DID YOU KNOW?
Cafe 230 is marketed as a homegrown Georgia restaurant that supports local customers, farmers and businesses while offering Southern-style food at reasonable prices.
“I was sitting in my church one day and a man came up behind me — his name was Dr. John Testerman, who’s no longer here now; he was an orthopedic surgeon here in Albany,” Sproul said. “He said, ‘I want you to pray about being a Sunday school teacher.’ At the same time this was happening, Frank Sumner had been telling me that, ‘Kevin, you know you’ve got the ability to work with kids; you understand things.’ He said, ‘I’m not going to be around forever.’ So at the same time, I get hit from both angles, and so I told Dr. Testerman, you know, I’ll give it a shot.”
WORKING WITH KIDS
An hour a week in Sunday school, Sproul decided, wasn’t enough. He needed to become more involved. He got permission from his supervisor at the time, Maj. Ken Mills, to visit middle and high school campuses on Fridays, with the stipulation that he get his assigned duties, such as serving warrants, completed first.
In 1995, he got even more involved. He told his wife, Vicki, he felt led to open their home to troubled kids.
“I said, ‘I’m going to be honest with you. Some are gang-bangers. Some have religious beliefs that you and I don’t believe in. Some are dealing with alternate lifestyles. They’re running from drugs, they’re involved in drugs,’” Sproul recalled. “She said, ‘I’m not getting between you and God. If He told you to open this home up for them, let’s get that bedroom ready.’ So, we did.”
Jumping ahead to a point that was near the end of our conversation, I suggested that it takes a special spouse to handle what comes part and parcel with a lawman’s badge, especially a sheriff’s star.
“She’s my No. 1 supporter,” Sproul said. “I really tell men this: You know, behind every half-decent man is a great woman. I watched my mother serve my dad and love my dad till the day he died. I learned a lot through her actions. And then I was very fortunate to be married to the woman I’m married to for almost 30 years now. To see her raise three children the way she raised three children ... very special.”
The decision to open their house was part of the work that the sheriff said was critically important, dealing “directly one-on-one, spending time with people, trying to let them see there are other choices in life to make than what they might perceive some movie star or musician or athlete telling them. When you look at the big picture, you see the people who’ve been in substance abuse addictions over the years with the movie industry, the musicians, the football, basketball, baseball athletes who all get into trouble. They need to see somebody that’s trying to make good choices and positive choices,” he said.
In the 1990s, Sproul was supplementing his income by working at the McDonald’s on Dawson Road. His work with youth literally spilled over into the restaurant parking lot. He told the students he met that if they were uncomfortable speaking to him while he was in uniform or on campus, to drop by McDonald’s. “It grew to being so big, I had to stop telling kids that,” he said. “Even the management at McDonald’s were saying our customers can’t get in here, you’ve got 30 and 40 kids in the parking lot.
“I’ve always believed in prevention and intervention. You’re not going to reach everybody. ... You don’t know what kids hear when you’re talking to them. And if you continue to love them and to share your wealth of knowledge, I feel it has to have an impact somewhere. It has to make a difference.”
LISTENING AND CARING HELP
Sproul said when he became sheriff, he took an unusual step. “I walked through my jail and I visited very inmate,” he said. “Did something very unusual that many sheriffs don’t do. I opened up communication lines with my inmates.”
While he had limits as to what he could do for jail inmates, he let them know that he would address issues such as health care, food and how they were treated. He also said if they had concerns about their old neighborhoods, things that were happening with family on the outside, he would do what he could. That led to numerous tips on gang activity and drugs that he has been able to share with other law enforcement agencies.
“Even today,” he said, “I still get six to eight letters a week from inmates who are concerned about their niece or nephew who’s involved in drugs, prostitution, gangs. I never say where it comes from.”
Each of those tips, in its own way, has a chance of shoring up society from erosion. And it’s hard to argue that it won’t take intervention on a personal level to stem the tide. The education rate for inmates is low — many can’t even sign their names. They get used to set schedules while incarcerated, get used to not having to worry about where their next meal is coming from and have trouble adjusting to life with no supervision, all reasons behind the high recidivism rate.
“I tell people today after having so many kids in the home and working with them over the years, and I know this is my opinion,” Sproul said, “but a lot of our younger generation today is standing on the wrong side of the plate, with no bat in their hand — and I used to say they’re facing Randy Johnson with two strikes; now they’re facing Strasburg or whoever you want to say with two strikes — and you expect them to reach just first base. Not hit a home run, but just get to first base.
“So, what are our kids doing today? They’re making that choice of leaning into a pitch, getting hit, or committing a criminal act to make a name for themselves, so to speak, or to get a chance at life.”
He thought back to the ‘90s, an evening when he was catching a Monday Night Football game on television. The phone rang. “I hear this kid drop the phone, hit the floor,” the sheriff said. “He said, ‘They’re shooting at me! They’re shooting at me!’ Now, he’s in a (housing) project less than five miles from my house and he’s having to dodge gunfire and I’m sitting at home on my recliner watching a football game, enjoying a nice glass of cold tea. I got up, got dressed, went over and picked him up and he spent the night that night.
“That’s what a lot of our children are up against today.”
With summer programs the office conducts, he said, many kids can’t wait to get back just to eat a meal.
“I used to take my sack lunches from the jail that we feed the inmates around to the schools and, this past year, I had some elementary school students say, ‘You mean you feed us that every day if we come to jail?’ And I said, yes, but you don’t want this. One kid said that’s more than I get every day,” he recalled. “I can’t even show them a sack lunch anymore because this is good for some of these kids. I’m trying to deter them from coming to jail and convince them they don’t want to come, and they’re seeing a turkey baloney sandwich with an apple as a plus.”
ALMOST A SHORT CAREER
We’d hit a point in the conversation where I thought a change was appropriate. As the person being interviewed, Sproul had his choice of Albany restaurants. Why, I asked, Cafe 230?
“We eat here about once a month,” Sproul said, adding it was centrally located for both of us. “My chief and I eat out almost every day at lunch together, and it’s for several reasons. We get a lot of business done over lunch. We don’t get a lot of phone interruptions.
“And it lets owners of restaurants know we’re out here, we care about you. Lets the owners share things with us.
“I think what they’re doing for the downtown area, I really like it, trying to bring people back down here. I hope it works. This is one of the safest areas in Albany.”
On this point, I have to agree. The Herald is located at Pine Avenue and Washington Street — right in the heart of downtown — and I just had my 29th anniversary with the newspaper in late June. I don’t remember feeling particularly nervous about walking out to my pickup at night.
“I come down here all the time at night,” Sproul noted. “I go to the market down here.”
I asked Sproul when he knew he was going to go into law enforcement. As a kid, he wanted — like me and a lot of other kids of the 1960s who watched the space race — to be an astronaut. He hadn’t considered police work, he said. After graduating high school, he attended Albany Tech and thought about going into construction. He began working for an alcoholic beverage distributor and was doing that when he met his wife, attended a revival and got saved, took a look at his life and decided he wanted a new direction. He prayed for a door to open, and in September 1982, then-Sheriff Lamar Stewart, who had turned him down for a job three years earlier, did just that. He said he’d been hearing good things lately about Sproul.
It was a career that almost ended before it began.
“Forty-five minutes into my first night of training, I saw three inmates just get profusely beaten pretty bad,” he said. “It was pretty ugly. I remember sitting there that night through the rest of that shift thinking as soon as 7:30, 8 o’clock gets here, I’m through, I’m out of here. This isn’t for me.
“I went home and I called my mother and I told her how upset I was. You have to know my mother at the time. She said, ‘Honey, didn’t you tell me you were excited about this job, that God gave you this job? And after one night, you don’t think that’s the job for you?’ And I said yes, ma’am. And she said, ‘Well, that’s good, just give up on Him that easy, just quit when you want to quit. Why don’t you make a difference? Why don’t you run for sheriff one day if you think you can change things?’ That’s how it got started.”
NEXT GENERATION OF OFFICERS
Sproul said he didn’t make a lot of promises when he ran for sheriff because he felt tough economic times were ahead. An integrated computer system that would allow law enforcement agencies to share information — something he would have liked to have had his first year — is just now in the procurement stage.
“With the budget situation the way it is,” he noted, “it’s difficult to get some things done.”
The recent talk of merging the Dougherty County Police Department under the Sheriff’s Office has been difficult, he said, adding that he admires the work DCPD does.
“That’s difficult from the personal side of things, from the business side of things. Challenges you have to look at,” he said. “I tell our County Commissioners all the time I appreciate what they do. They make some of the toughest decisions. But as elected officials, that’s what we have to do.”
I told him I thought there would always be that rub between demand for services and the demand to keep taxes as low as possible.
“If I could have a genie come out of a bottle and grant me a wish,” Sproul said, “I’d love to see the people on the front lines in public safety today, from the detention officer who has to put up with inmates for 12 hours a day to the police officer on the street corner, be compensated for what they do more so than they are being.”
New hires are coming in at the same pay rate as officers who have been employed several years because of no cost-of-living or merit raises during the lean economic times.
“You can only tell a person so long how much you appreciate what they do for you, and thanks for your loyalty and dedication,” he said. “Have you seen the grocery bill stay the same for five years? Insurance costs? We’re all dealing with that.”
What he fears is a loss of young people choosing law enforcement as careers.
“They can only hold on and feed their families for so long,” he said. “And we’re going to lose this younger generation, these 18 through 27 year olds now. They’re going to go back to college, which we’re seeing. They’re going to go back to trade school. They’re going to find other employment, other avenues, other areas. They’re going to abandon public safety.
“When you push that button and you need EMS or the fire department or the police department, you don’t want to hear someone on the other end of the line: ‘Due to the economic situation, we’re short today. We’ll send someone out when we can get them there.’”
THE WHITE HAT
One of the things that has become a signature for Sproul is his white cowboy hat. I couldn’t let the lunch go by without asking him about it. One of the first things I noticed when he walked into the cafe was that he didn’t have it on.
He smiled and shook his head slightly, saying he had been surprised by the attention it drew. He said he was teaching two-week classes on Gang Resistance, Education and Training (GREAT) when he decided to get into the 2008 sheriff’s race.
“I was out West somewhere, and I saw a deputy sheriff walking down the street with a horse with a white hat on,” he recalled. “And I thought, ‘you know, that’d be neat.’ ...
“I decided to put my name in to run for sheriff. I said, ‘you know, after I get elected sheriff, I’m going to put a white hat on and say there’s a new sheriff in town.’ It was just one of those moments you have. I didn’t know it was going to become what it has become. I go to schools now, and they want me to go back to my truck and get my hat and come back with it on. Growing up under a Marine, you know, you never wore your hat in a building. That was just unheard of.”
Looking back at his decision to run in ‘08, Sproul said he had doubters, even among his closest friends.
“When I stepped out and run for sheriff, I had some of my best friends I grew up with tell me you have no chance of being elected,” he said. They were focusing on demographics and not taking into account his long years of community work and interaction. “I said, ‘I don’t have to be sheriff. I’m going to give God the glory whether I win or lose, and I’m going to try to do the best I can.’”
We’d been talking a full hour. The check came — Cafe 230 has some delightful cakes and such for dessert, but we both declined — and I told the sheriff I appreciated his time. He had a few things to do before he went out to the Fun Park on North Slappey Boulevard, where the local Special Olympic Games were being held. At 2 p.m., he was going to get to help hand out the awards, one of the lighter moments of being a sheriff.
“We have to be there for people at their best times and their worst times,” he observed. “It’s almost like being a minister or a doctor.
“If I didn’t make a dime to be a sheriff, I’d be a sheriff. I love it. I enjoy the family atmosphere in that arena. I enjoy working with people and helping individuals out.”