Living a Legacy: Jefferson County Sheriff John Aubrey
After a 28-year law enforcement career, John Aubrey jumped back into law enforcement with both feet in 1999 when he won his first election as the Jefferson County sheriff. Nearly 19 years with the sheriff’s office only has fueled his appetite for serving his staff and county. Aubrey has spearheaded several initiatives in his tenure, including becoming Kentucky’s first accredited sheriff’s agency, obtaining a merit and collective bargaining system and expanding the office’s duties to include assigning deputies to seven local and federal task forces and nine schools. Aubrey also has played a major role on a national level, serving as president of the National Sheriffs’ Association, one of only two from Kentucky to hold that seat. He is a graduate of the National Sheriffs’ Institute and FBI National Academy Class 96, among others. He earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in Criminal Justice from the University of Louisville.
HOW DID YOU EMBARK ON YOUR CAREER AS SHERIFF OF JEFFERSON COUNTY?
I retired from the Louisville Police Department in in December 1990 as the acting chief. I was happy and had a nice retirement. I had my real estate license.
In 1997, members of the Fraternal Order of Police started sending close friends to see if I’d be interested in running. I said, ‘I’ve never run for anything in my life.’ But, they convinced me to run. I told one person, ‘I’m not political.’ But they said as soon as I put my name in the hat, I’d be a politician.
With all the support of the deputy sheriffs, FOP, the federal and state law enforcement agencies in our area that endorsed us and the great support from the unions, we won that first election with 68 percent of the vote against the incumbent.
The first couple years, my chief deputy I selected (who passed away three years ago in October) taught me how to spell sheriff. I was a cop. I did very well in my career in the police department. But it’s a different game, it’s a different set of circumstances, especially in Jefferson County. But together, I like to say we all grew up together and were on the same sheet of music. People will ask if I’m going to run again, and I say as long as I have my health and I get voted in – those would be the deciding factors.
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT IN WHICH SHERIFFS’ OFFICES SHOULD GET INVOLVED AND PAY ATTENTION?
Since day one we’ve been strong proponents of training. Training is one of the most expensive things you do in your agency because of time and cost. It takes a person out of their job and someone likely is having to cover that position. But, the dividends can’t be counted. The investment has multiplied hundreds of times over the years.
We send commanding officers to the Department of Criminal Justice Training’s three-week Academy of Police Supervision course. The first guy who went said it was the best class he’d ever been to. So, our guys and ladies go there, then we try to work them into the Southern Police Institute and the FBI National Academy.
The NSA is getting more and more involved in providing training. They were donated a campus in Rhode Island last year. That will be very good leadership command training for mid-level and top executive officers. And they are always putting on training. They’ll get an agency to host and find a spot and they’ll come in and put the training on, providing all the instructors.
Training is critical. The new administration at DOCJT, we are 200 percent for them. They truly are becoming great partners in helping us develop our certified instructors, and in turn, we’re going to try to provide our folks to help them out at their Shelby Campus.
Louisville Metro training has been great partners with us, too. They give us a number of slots in those courses that are mandatory.
We have been given space on the fifth floor of our building to put in a training room with mats and the Red-Man suit. We have the equipment, but it’s not operational yet. Those things enhance the competence of our deputies. They feel more comfortable in dealing with situations. And if it does go sour, they feel more comfortable with how they will respond and take care of the situation.
As we enhance training, it often leaves us short, especially in the courtrooms. But sometimes you have to make your priorities, and I think training is the highest.
One way we combat being short is with our Reserve Unit. Currently, an applicant for the Reserve Unit must go through the same process as if applying for a full-time deputy position, including background check, polygraph, drug screening, psychological and physical fitness testing.
Their training cycle includes more than 200 hours of classroom, firearms, driving and assignments, like working Derby Eve/Derby Day details at Churchill Downs. They work details we expect to staff, including working in the courts and riding with full-time deputies on process, warrants and Emergency Protection Orders.
From my view point they are a tremendous asset to our office and provide a genuine force multiplier to help accomplish our mission.
WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO ENGAGE IN A LEADERSHIP ROLE IN THE NATIONAL SHERIFFS’ ASSOCIATION?
You have to go back to 1999 when I got involved in the Kentucky Sheriffs’ Association. That was truly a learning experience. You hear people ask, ‘How do you change laws?’ The big word is lobbying, but the real word is networking, meeting those legislators, being honest with them out front and having a cause that’s right.
I was president once, but now I am serving as the chair of the KSA legislative committee. You get everybody together and the thing you have to take out of it is partisan politics. Our leadership at the executive-director level has made contacts, and this new administration has been a pleasure to work with. They want to know what you think and what your issues are.
Being part of KSA got me involved in NSA. But why get involved? The same thing holds true for NSA as it did for KSA on legislative issues. We are deeply involved in legislative issues. And the fact that Sen. Mitch McConnell is here and he’s like the senate sheriff -- him and I go back to when he was county judge and I was in the police department. He always has been a strong proponent of law enforcement, so that was a natural. We’ve had a number of meetings with him, and when he’s home we get the Kentucky sheriffs to come. They don’t have to go to Washington, D.C., he’s here.
Even in the past administration, we had meetings at the White House, especially with Vice President Joe Biden. He truly was a law enforcement friend. In February 2017 the White House contacted the NSA executive director and said President Donald Trump wants to invite 10 sheriffs over to see what their thoughts are.
They gave us a transcript of the whole meeting of what each sheriff and the President said. He went around the table and you identified yourself and where you’re from and he’d say, ‘What are your issues and how can we fix them?’
Immigration, going dark, a lot of the things we see in the national news were all brought up. I was about eighth in line. I thought there won’t be anything for me to bring up. But no one brought up asset forfeiture or the 1033 program where the military gave us surplus equipment.
I told him people act like when we take money away from somebody that we’re stealing it. It’s all through the courts and the judicial system. He said, ‘You mean someone is against taking money away from dope dealers? Who is that?’ I said, ‘I have to be careful Mr. President. But a lot of the heat is coming out of Congress because people are screaming to Congress and Congress screams at DOJ.’ They got nervous and the past president issued an executive order on the 1033 program.
I truly believe he’s very sincere and concerned, and when he says he has your back, I think he means it for law enforcement and the military. I think you’ll see a tremendous policy shift or shift in objectives and goals for U.S. Attorney’s Offices and law enforcement in general.
That truly was a great experience. How many sheriffs ever get to do that, especially from Kentucky. The value is the fact that if the sheriffs’ associations, and sheriffs in particular, present a united front with the legislators and it’s the right front, they’ll work with us.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCES IN RUNNING A SHERIFF’S OFFICE?
The biggest difference between the police agency I came out of and the sheriff’s office is we have to earn our money. We are a fee-based office. My good friend Chief Steve Conrad (Louisville Metro Police Department) can go see the mayor and say we’re running short here. We do have boundaries on our revenue, but we’re doing OK. The key is we explained that to deputies and the leadership of the FOP. There’s a screen I pulldown and put the numbers up so they could see where they are and where the revenue comes from and what the expenses are and our cap.
From 2008 to 2011 when everything was going down in the tubes, our folks received no raises for three years. Then when things started picking up, our revenue started increasing. My biggest revenue source is the fact that the sheriff is the tax collector. And you get a commission for the taxes you collect. We collect for the school board, the fire districts, Metro and the state. That income makes up between 80 and 82 percent of my budget. And it’s one of our smallest units. My philosophy’s always been, if we find out we have some extra, we’ll sit down and decide how we’re going to divide it up. It isn’t something done arbitrarily. That’s probably one of the important things that they understand if we make it and we have it, we’ll cut it up.
There are so many aspects to what we do as a sheriff’s office here, I marvel at the small, rural, mountain sheriff’s office. They have the same responsibilities as I do, not as many people to deal with, but the critical thing is they do not have the resources. One of the first sheriffs I met at the first Kentucky Sheriffs’ Association Conference I went to was from Fulton, Ky. He had one deputy, they drove their personal vehicles and, if fiscal court had some money, it would pay for repairs and fuel. Now, that was in 1999, and it has improved some down there, but they still don’t have the tax base nor the people. So, I look at them and truly admire them for what they do. If you call 911 at 3 a.m., most likely the sheriff is going to answer it and make the run. If there is a KSP trooper close he or she may get it, but they’re covering two or three counties, too. Everybody is short.
In our office, do we have everything we want? No. But, we do have 100 percent more than what most of them have. So we try every way in the world to share with them and that has really worked out wonderful.
THE KENTUCKY SHERIFFS’ ASSOCIATION MOTTO IS, ‘NO SHERIFF STANDS ALONE.’ HOW DOES THE KSA EMBRACE THIS MOTTO IN SUPPORT OF KENTUCKY SHERIFFS?
When we were in Reno, Nev., at this year’s National Sheriffs’ Association conference, the Carter County sheriff called. They had a flash flood in the county and three of his cars were totaled, and they were only one to two years old. He’s only got six. We just had put some new cars in our fleet. Some of the one’s we were replacing were still safe, had no damage and ran well. Those go in our pool. Once our pool gets to a certain level, then we will help other agencies. You talk about feeling good when I told the executive director, ‘Just tell him when we get home, we’ll have three cars for him.’ They came and picked them up and it was like Christmas in July. The Kentucky Association of Counties provides their insurance, and they’ll replace those cars, but that’s a three- or four-month process. These cars will keep him on the road, and when they replace their cars, they’ll have some extras.
I’m a firm believer in the moto, ‘No Sheriff Stands Alone.’
When Katrina hit in Louisiana, we sent 24 deputies, two different times for a week at a time to help Saint Charles Parish. It was a great experience for our guys and ladies to go. But for the people at the either end, it really epitomized, ‘No sheriff stands alone.’
Is there an aspect of mentoring that happens through the KSA for new sheriffs?
A lot of them come up through the sheriff’s office. One of the things KSA Executive Director Jerry Wagner initiated is when we have our state association annual meeting, he brings in the brand new sheriffs two days before. They come in Friday and get Saturday and Sunday, and then Monday through Friday with everyone else. That has really worked well.
One of the hardest things for some sheriffs’ offices is keeping the books. That will get you in trouble in a heartbeat – you’re collecting money. The Department of State and Local Government are fantastic about wanting you to do it right. And they’ll come out and help get you set up. If you turn that down and you get in trouble, that’s on you because they will come out and are very good about putting in the necessary time to get you started right. I found the same thing with the auditors. When they come and see something, they try to show you how to make it right.
There are 120 sheriffs, and at the last conference, there were more than 100 present. When I first went in in 1999, sometimes they would have 40 to 50. But it’s training, training, training. In Kentucky, and I don’t mean this negatively – but if you’re a truck driver and run for sheriff, if you win, you’re the sheriff and you have the same deal I have. Most understand they need help and need training. They buy into the fact that when we say, no sheriff stands alone, we will try to do our best, the association and the leadership, to make sure that happens. The folks that reap the benefits – the public – they get better service. It’s just a plus all the way around.
WHAT ASPECT OF YOUR PROFESSION DO YOU ENJOY THE MOST?
I enjoy coming to work. It’s not so much what you’re doing, it’s who you’re doing it with. When you get over in that courthouse, there are 150 deputies and commanding officers. That’s a pretty good size family. And a lot of them had worked together in other places and now they’re in this facility. When people retire, they’ll tell you, even the guys on the street – I just miss it.
I try to tell some people, especially if interviewing a perspective recruit, and I can sense that he’s a little reluctant about whether this really is what he wants to do in life. I tell them that I’m not smart enough to articulate this but I can tell you in plain words – law enforcement and the passion for it is something that is in your heart. I don’t know how to describe that, but I truly know what it feels like. But if that’s not there and you come into law enforcement, you’ll be unhappy. You really need to take time and think that process through. Make sure that’s what you want to do. Because if it is, you’ll be a lifer. And there’s a lot of things that won’t matter as far as benefits and pay, but just the fact that you truly are one who wants to help and serve and take care of people. I think some of us are just born to do that. Maybe that’s right and maybe that’s wrong. But it’s been a good ride, and I’m looking forward to the future.