Harrison County's sheriff-elect says he expects employee morale "to go through the roof" with his plans to provide equal pay for equal work, restructure departments and strengthen partnerships with other law enforcement agencies.
Troy Peterson said he and his transition team have spent four weeks reviewing salaries, job descriptions and operations. They've also been looking at ways to get the most in public-safety benefits through work with other law enforcement agencies and federal task forces while making the Harrison County Sheriff's Office more accessible to the public.
Peterson unseated two-term Sheriff Melvin Brisolara with 62 percent of the vote in the Aug. 25 primary run-off. Peterson has 23 years' experience with the sheriff's office. He had earned the rank of captain when he resigned in July 2014 to run for the position after Brisolara announced plans to retire. Peterson campaigned as "an everyday kind of guy" willing to use his experience and people skills to give back to his community.
Peterson has about five weeks left to tweak plans for his administration before he is sworn in as the county's top law enforcement officer.
The new sheriff picks his or her chief deputy and command staff. In Harrison County, that often has meant bringing new people on board.
Peterson said the positions will be filled from within the department, but he's not ready to identify those appointed.
"Nobody will be out of a job," he said. "Between restructuring and pay equalization, it's not going to make everybody happy, but I believe it will be a big morale booster overall. Anyone who wants to stay will have a job. There's more than likely a job they can do.
"I've called in quite a few people to discuss changes and they seem to understand what I want to accomplish
and are happy with it."
Peterson said his transition team's reviews noted some problems he was aware of and revealed some he didn't know existed.
For instance, the sheriff's patrol officers rank fifth lowest in pay in comparison with the county's five police departments. Administrative assistants are the highest paid non-sworn civilian workers in the coastal region, though one is paid much less, he said, and hasn't received a raise in years.
Also, he said there's a wide gap in salaries among patrol officers with similar lengths of service.
He said the team also has determined two majors, among the highest paid employees, can do the work being done by four.
"We are trying to restructure people who have exorbitant paychecks or raises and are getting paid for duties they don't do," he said. "We've got to cut back to what base salaries should be.
"The equalization process is taking money from some and giving money to others. I'm going to make sure the paychecks equal the job. I don't want to take money away from anybody, but equal pay is deserved for equal work."
Restructuring will allow some patrol officers to move into investigations or narcotics. Also, the county has six open patrol jobs, which he expects will be filled in February.
His transition team includes business professionals, administrative law enforcement officials and retired law enforcement personnel from state and federal levels.
Peterson said he also met with every local law enforcement official in the coastal counties to share his vision to build partnerships and camaraderie.
"We're supposed to be the lead agency on the Coast and we want to get back to that," he said. "Our arms and hands will always be open to give other agencies assistance."
Peterson, a U.S. Army veteran, has a criminal justice degree and has worked in most areas of law enforcement through the sheriff's office. He has served on state and federal task forces and led the sheriff's narcotics division. He also was commander of the Coastal Narcotics Enforcement Team, a position appointed by officials with participating agencies. CNET is composed of narcotics agents from the sheriff's office and area police departments.
Task forces, CNET
Criminals have no problem going from one city to another, into the county or crossing state lines, Peterson said. He believes combined law enforcement efforts can help deter crime and bring criminals to justice whether it's at state or federal levels of prosecution.
He plans to assign two additional narcotics agents to CNET and is talking with task forces about assigning deputies to their forces. Some task forces pay an officer's overtime. Others cover an officer's salary and the cost of a vehicle.
"Task forces help local agencies be a part of larger cases that can make a tremendous difference in (curbing) criminal activity, including drug trafficking," he said. Task-force work also can lead to larger seizures and forfeitures, which in turn can provide discretionary money for purchases not affordable under a local agency's budget.
Jail, office plans
Peterson said he plans to develop a two-year plan for the jail. The county spent millions of dollars in jail improvements over two decades while under federal supervision. Peterson said some repairs are still needed, and he wants every aspect, from lights to cameras, in good working order "so we can protect our officers and the inmates."
For years, the sheriff's primary office has been at the county jail. County courthouses in Gulfport and Biloxi each have a small office with a sheriff's emblem on the doors but the offices are no longer used, he said. Peterson plans to make those offices available for people who want to meet with him or someone on his staff.
Peterson said he expects to be in staff meetings at the jail during the week but plans to schedule time in the courthouse offices. The jail, he said, shouldn't be where people go who want information or have concerns unrelated to the jail.
"It can be intimidating at the jail," he said. "Average citizens never go to the jail and shouldn't have to go to the jail to talk to the sheriff or someone who can address their concerns."
Peterson said he will not criticize Brisolara's running of the sheriff's office.
"I've taken the high road thus far and won't change that now," he said.
Peterson ran on a campaign for change and used slogans such as "leading behind a badge, not a desk."
Several hundred people, including police officials and current and retired law enforcement officers, gathered at Cafe Climb on election night to celebrate his victory.
Peterson is a father and husband. While campaigning, he presented himself as a family man, a people person and an everyday citizen like the people whose votes he sought. On election day, he told the Sun Herald he brushed his teeth that morning with his daughter's strawberry-flavored "Hello Kitty" toothpaste.
"I'm no different than anyone else," he said. "I'm still a people person. I'm approachable 100 percent. I'm not going to change the person that I am."
He said he looks forward to setting up his office. His first piece of decor? He plans to hang his fishing pole on the wall.