VOL. 129 | NO. 122 | Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Sheriff’s Race Reflects Different Law Enforcement Cultures
By Bill Dries
Bennie Cobb remembers how he got his first job in the local criminal justice system.
It was 1980, and Cobb – then 19 years old – went to apply for a job at the old City Jail.
“The lady looked at me and she said, ‘You look big enough. Report to work at night,’” Cobb told a group of 40 supporters at a fundraiser this month in his bid to unseat incumbent Republican Sheriff Bill Oldham in the August county general election.
“Law enforcement and corrections has transformed 100 percent,” Cobb added. “These days, it don’t make no difference what size you are or how big you are. You’ve got to be a thinking man. You have to be a person with compassion and understanding.”
Cobb recently retired from the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office after a 30-year career in local law enforcement.
His family moved to Memphis from Hughes, Ark. The oldest of nine children, Cobb – along with his siblings and mother – lived in the Hurt Village, Lauderdale Courts and LeMoyne Gardens public housing developments as well as on Beale Street.
Cobb recalled that in the Northside High School yearbook the year he graduated, he said he wanted to be a police officer.
“I wanted to be not only a police officer, but I wanted to be the best,” he said. “I can go to any neighborhood and talk to gang members and have an understanding. I know a drug dealer when I see one and can understand him.”
Cobb sought the Democratic nomination for sheriff in 2010 but lost in the primary to Randy Wade, who then lost to Oldham.
“If I were egotistical, I would tell you that you should vote for me because there’s never been an African-American elected sheriff in Shelby County,” Cobb told his supporters last week. “But I’m not egotistical. Those are just facts. If I were egotistical, I would tell you that there’s not an African-American sheriff in the state of Tennessee. But I’m not egotistical. I’m saying to you that I’m looking to be your next sheriff because I’m qualified.”
Cobb has criticized Oldham for not emphasizing crime prevention and “front-end” programs that seek to guide teenagers and young adults away from gangs and encourage them to stay in school.
But Oldham has emphasized such approaches by his department, including mentoring programs.
He and Cobb have each advocated a law enforcement philosophy beyond locking up growing numbers of people with no efforts at attacking the causes of crime.
“I think that blood sells,” Oldham said at Saturday’s political picnic hosted by County Commissioner Sidney Chism of daily media coverage of individual crimes. “What we don’t see are things that occur in all of our communities. … We have got great people doing outstanding things. … We do need every one of us to reflect upon how crime, how poverty and education impacts every one of us.”
Cobb has said much the same thing in his campaign, and he also is saying he will be more visible than Oldham has been.
The two contenders come from different law enforcement experiences and cultures.
Oldham is a former Memphis police officer and Memphis police director who came to the sheriff’s department as chief deputy to Mark Luttrell during Luttrell’s two terms as Shelby County sheriff before being elected Shelby County mayor in 2010.
Oldham joined the Memphis Police Department in 1972 about the time Jay Hubbard became the police department’s first director, replacing the police chief at the top of the police management chart. Oldham was around for the 1978 strike by police and firefighters.
Cobb’s experience has all been within the sheriff’s department, including running a county jail that came to include the city jail shortly after Cobb went to work there and the jail moved to the then-new Criminal Justice Center at 201 Poplar Ave.
In his 30 years, Cobb worked under Sheriffs Gene Barksdale, Jack Owens, A.C. Gilless and Luttrell. Cobb also worked under interim Sheriff Otis Higgs, who was the first African-American to serve as sheriff, appointed by the County Commission following Owens’ death.
The three decades were among the most politically turbulent in the long history of a sheriff’s office that has had, through much of its history, an atmosphere thick with its own brand of internal politics, including numerous election challenges of incumbent sheriffs from within the ranks.
Cobb’s resume includes being jail commander as well as commander of the Sheriff’s Office SWAT team and commander of its patrol and investigations divisions.
Cobb has also been commander of the department’s gang unit, narcotics division and the courts division.