Changing of the guard

Published 12:26 am Thursday, January 10, 2019

Meeks has spent most of last 25 years in sheriff’s department

When the clock strikes 12:01 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 14, Sheriff Dennis Meeks’ 12-year tenure as sheriff of Covington County will officially be over.

Meeks was the first person to serve three terms in the office in more than 50 years, when Cliff Meredith served from 1950 to 1962.

Dennis and Altheia Meeks are busy this week wrapping up a 12-year administration.

The dozen years went quickly, Meeks said Wednesday, but he’s pleased with the progress made in the department.

“The very first thing we did was walk through the jail, and we spent some money,” Meeks said. “We saw some areas that really needed to be addressed. We added razor wire, security cameras, and a lot of stuff, just to get the jail back secure.

The department also was behind on technology and vehicles.

“When I came in to office, I had to request immediately six vehicles,” he said. “The ones they had were shot, and some of them were actually dangerous. We tried to get into a rotation of replacing some every year.

“We were but able to keep the road guys and investigators in good vehicles. That’s their office, every day. We’ve got an officers’ room, but during the day, that vehicle is their room.”

Meeks said the department was able to access grants and other programs which allowed them to add and update equipment without any cost to the county.

The county also added an addition to the jail, and moved department communication from analog to digital radios.

“That’s the way things were moving,” he said. “If we had stayed analog, we would have been on an island, and not been able to talk to anybody (in other departments).”

The department is majorly changed from when Meeks first joined it in 1993 as a corrections office in the jail. Wilbur Mitchell was sheriff.

“It was the old jail,” he said, referencing the one behind the courthouse. “At that time, I was really just looking for a job, and I knew Wilbur. I went up there and talked to him, but it wasn’t like he said, ‘I’ve got an opening.’ But he called two days later, and he said, ‘I’ve gotta job for you, and need for you to come.’ ”

Meeks was a corrections officer, patrolman, investigator, chief investigator and chief deputy before being elected to his first term in 2006.

Altheia Meeks, who’s spent much of the last 12 years alongside her husband, was the first to say things were a lot different then.

“Gosh, back then, in the old jail, if we had 70 people, we were busting the wall,” Sheriff Meeks said. “Everything was done from the jail. We dispatched from there. We did everything, including distributing medication to inmates.”

As different as the current jail is – complete with medical personnel to distribute medications – the biggest changes in law enforcement over the past 25 years were precipitated by meth, which changed the outlook on everything, Meeks said.

The drug appeared in Covington County in late ’94 or early ’95, he said.

“The people that got into the meth scene hired a guy from California to come and teach them how to cook it,” Meeks recalled. “We wound up busting him and sending him to federal prison.”

The emergence of the drug changed the types of crimes local law enforcement officers see – increasing the number of thefts and burglaries. But it also changed how officers dealt with users, because the behavior of those strung out on the drug is unpredictable and erratic, he said.

“We had some burglaries and some thefts,” he said. “But people started to commit so many more to feed their habit. Our burglaries went through the roof.”

Social media also has impact law enforcement, he said, and not always in a good way.

The hardest case he ever worked was when he was an investigator in the department he now runs. A twentysomething, who didn’t live at home, spent the night with his mother and stepfather. After the stepfather went to work, he killed his mother, who was eight months pregnant, and his five-year-old half-brother. The young man covered their bodies, then drove to Bainbridge, Ga., where he killed his sister before turning his weapon on himself.

In his 12 years at the department helm, he lost two deputies. Deputy Heath Kelley died in an automobile wreck while responding to a call on a rainy Friday in April of 2014. The second, Larry Smith, died in a motorcycle wreck in September of 2015.

Smith’s accident was not work-related, but the night was among the most difficult the Meeks experienced.

“We had just watched them put David (Chief Deputy David Anderson) into a helicopter to airlift him to Pensacola,” Meeks recalled. “Altheia was driving his wife to Pensacola, and I had gone home to get us both some clothes. I was four miles from the house when I got a phone call to come to the Opp hospital because Larry had died.”

Meeks was often teased good-heartedly that more people voted for his wife, Altheia, than for him. He never disagreed, and said she’s been a tremendous help for him and the whole department. “The general public has no idea what the sheriff’s wife does  – or should do,” he said. 

For the first six months after he took office, she worked every day in the office, helping to get organized.

“She worked for free,” he said. “She was never paid one penny out of the sheriff’s office or the county commission.”

She also helped keep him grounded, he said, and reminded him to look at the bigger picture.

“I would see a situation with law enforcement blinders,” he said. “She would see it differently. That would give me the opportunity to blend the perspectives in whatever the situation was. That helped a lot.”

She was also there in the hard times, he said.

“She was there when other people needed her also,” he said. “When Heath got killed, she was right there at the hospital with his family.”

The sheriff said he never would have sought the office without her blessing. Mrs. Meeks said she encouraged him to run, but had no idea how busy his job would keep her.

“I didn’t expect I would be as busy as I was,” she said.

As the clock winds down on his last term, Meeks is circumspect about his plans.

“He’s not old enough to retire,” Mrs. Meeks said.

The couple acknowledge he’ll be working at something new in the near future, but for now, mum’s the word.

As they prepare for the changes ahead, they both said there is much they’ll miss.

“I will miss most of the people here,” Meeks said. “We made a lot of good contacts over the years. That I’ll miss.”

Mrs. Meeks said she’ll miss dealing with the public.

“I like helping people. I’m a caregiver,” she said. “I’ll miss the public.”