AUGUSTA, GEORGIA — Sheriff James G. Beck Jr. is built like a barrel with arms like hams and a balding bull head. He carries a little aluminum alloy .38 on his right hip and keeps a long silver .44 magnum in the office. Folks don’t mess with big Jim Beck.
When he was elected sheriff of Richmond County in Deep South Georgia he fired 15 deputies right off. They were bully boys, he said. Brutal, bad. It was a brave John Wayne act, and it brought him an instant posse of enemies. But he was out to clean up the county, and the fear of revenge came second.
Big Jim is a classic. In many ways he is the stereotypical Southern sheriff. But he is also part of a significant change for the better in the way that the peace is kept in the rural South. There is a definite move away from billy-club justice toward a fair deal.
There may even be a fallout favor to Canadians. You are much less likely now to hear horror stories of tourists caught driving a few miles over the 55limit being lugged off to jail until a “judge” can be located to fine them whatever maximum the local authority allows. A more liberal, though far from permissive, attitude applies.
Sitting behind his big wooden desk, high in the county building in Augusta, Sheriff Beck, 240 pounds, six-foot and 50, looks out of place. But his $530-aweek job keeps him office-bound with administration. Says Beck: “You’re not supposed to brag, you know. They say that self-praise is half scandal, but I take pride in what I do. I like to see things run like they should run. This department was plagued with brutality cases and that type of thing before I came. I wouldn’t tolerate that.
“I refused to swear in 15 of the deputies when I took over. These were the group that beat up people and carried big guns and were involved in a lot of things. They chased a lot of women and all that. You know, they just gave law enforcement a bad name all over the country.”
Traditionally, the Southern sheriff has a reputation that is about as savory as spit. During the ’60s it was often the shotgun-wielding “man of the law” who fought to thwart civil rights advances and keep “the old ways.” But now that blacks are voting in large numbers they are able to do something about that.
Sheriffs must stand for re-election every four years and they, along with other Dixie politicians, are changing their attitudes to keep their jobs.
Despite this, however, a number of recent studies show that blacks and the poor continue to receive disproportionately long sentences and provide most of the inmates on the region’s populous death rows. Not only that but the South continues to put more of its population in prison than the rest of the country, even though it has lower rates of both violent crime and crimes against property.
And it’s hard to forget the history. For example, in 1964 inNeshobaCounty, a Mississippi sheriff and his deputy were indicted for thé murder of three
civil rights workers—the sheriff was acquitted, the deputy convicted of conspiracy. In 1972, Willis McCall, then the flamboyant sheriff of Lake County, Florida, was implicated in the beating death of a mentally deficient black prisoner who had been picked up for a traffic offence. Witnesses testified that the prisoner was beaten and kicked as the sheriff said, “He ain’t crazy, he ain’t crazy, this nigger ain’t crazy.”
To sort the supposed from the substance two professors from the University of Central Florida have just completed a study on the Southern sheriff. Dr. Roger Handberg of the political science department and Dr. Charles Unkovic of the sociology department conclude that “the Southern county sheriff
is the subject of much speculation, degradation and misinformation. As a law enforcement official, his visible public record is often spotty with episodes of lawlessness flashing into public view.”
They report that as a group the sheriffs are typically middle-aged (average, 47), white, male, with a 12th-grade education. “The sheriff is apt to be a local boy made good,” says Dr. Unkovic. “Nearly half the sheriffs in our study were born and raised within the county of which they are now sheriff. They tend to be what is known in the South as ‘red-necks’ or ‘good ol’ boys’.”
But again, the professors also found that change was setting in. “The younger sheriffs show the effects of increasing emphasis upon educational credentials,” adds Dr. Unkovic. Says the published study: “The Southern sheriff’s reputation took a pounding during the 1960s as they attempted to stem the tide of social and political change. The sheriff’s role was usually that of resister of change and defender of the old segregationalist status quo.”
Dr. Unkovic told Maclean’s: “It seems to be changing. We seem to be getting a much more efficient, enlightened and forward-looking law enforcement officer. The sheriff is changing with the times, and of course, that’s for the better.”
None of which is to imply that the Southern sheriff is still not firmly in charge of his bailiwick, or that he has lost any of his color. Wayne King, who covers the Southern states for The New York Times, tells about a venturesome northerner vacationing in Alabama who decides to pull off a country road for a bite to eat.
He enters a roadhouse, orders, eats his catfish and hush puppies and then, while he is relaxing, a big man with a toothpick in his mouth bellies up to the table, smiles, says howdy and introduces himself as the chef. “Oh, delightful,” says the visitor. “The uh, fish was very good. You prepare food very well, not as greasy as one comes to expect down here.”
The smile fades as the big man hitches his belt, extracts the toothpick and explains again, real slow, that he is the chef—the CHEF.
“Well, I liked the collard greens, too,” says the visitor, “and the iced tea and ...”
“No, dammit, boy!” the big man explodes, pounding the table, “I’m the chef, the chef! I run this whole dadblamed county! I’m the chef of this county!”
Whether it is “chef,” the way they pronounce the word in parts of Alabama and Georgia, or “shurf” the way they pronounce it in the coastal Carolinas, the Southern sheriff is on the mend.
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