Jim Hammond, sheriff of Hamilton County, is a P.O.S.T. certified officer, serving three full terms and one special two-year term. A graduate of Tennessee Temple University as well as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, he holds bachelor’s degrees in psychology and criminal justice, and a Master of Science in criminal justice. He is a graduate of the Chattanooga Police Department’s Police Academy, Class of 1979. He is a graduate of the United States Secret Service’s Dignitary Protection School, the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s Auto Theft School, the Public Safety Institute’s Police Planning and Resource Development, the Leadership Institute, and the United States Justice Department’s International Training Assistance Program.
While few sheriff s enjoy a career free of challenges, this particular sheriff experienced a uniquely fascinating series of events and career twists during the course of his journey.
James Willis Hammond III was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on June 4, 1944, to James Willis Hammond Jr. and Claudine Milton. He was the second child of three; an elder sister, Gail, was born in 1942 and a younger brother, John, in 1946.
When Jim was three years old, tragedy struck the family on December 27, 1947, when James Jr. went duck hunting on Lake Kissimmee with a friend and was caught in an unexpected and violent storm, capsizing their small fishing boat. Though the friend was able to hold on to the overturned craft and eventually swim to safety, Jim Jr. was nowhere to be found.A search party was quickly organized, conducting sweeps of the waterways over the course of several days before James Jr.’s body was recovered.
Mrs. Hammond would struggle to raise the children on her own for the next few years, moving the family to Tampa. During this time she reconnected with an old acquaintance of her deceased husband. The couple courted and married in 1952, moving to Sarasota, Florida.
Coming to Chattanooga
After graduating from high school, Jim travelled to Chattanooga to attend Tennessee Temple University. In 1963, after completing his freshman year, he was hired for his first job in public service as a third-shift intake officer at Juvenile Court, and was promoted to Probation Officer in 1966.
By the spring of 1968, Jim was maintaining an exhaustive routine of working a full-time job along with an assortment of odd jobs after work, arriving home to study late into the night before getting a few hours of sleep, only to start it all over again the following morning. He was on his last semester of coursework, and graduation was almost in sight. Then came a notice in the mail instructing him to report for duty with the United States Navy.
He was assigned to the Navy’s Submarine Flotilla Six. During this period he proposed to his college sweetheart, Jeanie, who he had met at his alma mater as she was attending her freshman year. They married in December 1969 and moved to his duty station in Charleston. Upon being honorably discharged in 1971 due to downsizing at the conclusion of the war, Jim and his new bride moved back to Chattanooga, where he returned to his old job at Juvenile Court as a legal services officer.
Jim enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga the same year to pursue a second bachelor’s degree, this time in criminal justice, completing it in 1976. In 1973, he became a first-time father with the birth of his son, James W. Hammond IV. A second child followed in May 1974 with the birth of a daughter, Brandi Jean.
It seemed that the young couple’s life-goals were moving along rather nicely. Jim was enjoying the fruits of his labor and the couple had purchased a small house.
The day was January 9, 1975. Snow was blanketing the ground. Jim and his co-worker, Will Lasseter, were heading out early that morning to Lovell Field, where a small single-engine private plane would carry the two men and another co-worker, Minnie West, to Memphis for a conference.
The group arrived in Memphis and attended the conference without incident. And though the snow had continued much of the day, the consensus was that the returning fl ight should proceed.
At around 6:30 p.m., the fl ight began its final approach to Chattanooga. The passengers were dozing. Jim was half-asleep, in and out of slumber, and he could occasionally detect the pilot’s voice radioing the tower for confirmation of their position and altitude.
The next time he opened his eyes, he caught a tree branch streaking past the windshield in a frightening blur. And in an instant came the deafening sounds of a catastrophic impact.
Next came the paralyzing helplessness of near-catastrophic forces exerted upon their frames. Metallic screeching sounds. The fuselage rotating and slamming end over end, punctuated by one final, bludgeoning stop as the fuselage plowed into a tree…then tumbling to the ground, crashing through the foliage before coming to a punishing halt. Then finally… it was quiet.
Though unsure of how long he had been semi-conscious, and extremely dizzy, Jim became aware of the curious sensation of blood rushing to his head. Disoriented, he gradually came to realize that he was hanging upside down in his seat, suspended only a few feet from the ground. He managed to trigger the seatbelt release, and fell a foot or two to the snow-covered ground.
He stumbled up and located Ms. West. He extricated her from the seat, dragging her a short distance from the wreckage and propping her up against a tree. Ventur ing back into the dark, he found his friend Will, critically injured and unconscious, and dragged him to where he had placed Ms. West.
To his horror, the plane was now fully engulfed in flames. His heart sank. He would have to abandon his search for the pilot and seek help. Reluctantly, he turned and made his way into the trees towards a distant light that he could barely make out. Soon he broke through the undergrowth and stumbled onto an open road, where he saw the beams of two headlights cutting through the snow, bearing down upon him. He waved his arms frantically at the approaching truck and flagged down a park ranger who’d heard the crash and was looking for survivors.
For his efforts, Jim was awarded a commendation from the Chattanooga Area Safety Board and recognized in the feature sections of local newspapers.
Despite the life-altering nature of this event, the young man returned to his work and home life, determined to restore a sense of normalcy to his family. As proof of his resolve, a blessing arrived that year with the birth of his third child, Sundi Dawn. It was also that year that Jim would meet a man who would come to alter the course of his career in innumerable ways.
H.Q. Evatt, the long-time sheriff of Hamilton County, had recently finished serv ing his third consecutive two-year term. At that time, Hamilton County term limits required the lawman to step down, prohibiting him from running again for at least one term. H.Q. found himself unemployed for the first time in over a decade. He still needed to work though, so with some guidance from a judge friend, he found himself reporting to Jim that year as a process server for Juvenile Court.
The two men got along quite well; H.Q. impressed the young man with his many tales and exploits in local law enforcement, while Jim impressed the elder states man with his education and professionalism. As time progressed, the possibilities of a comeback campaign stirred in H.Q.’s thoughts.
An Idea Worth Considering
One day in early 1978, H.Q. stepped into Jim’s office with a proposal. He was run ning for sheriff again. And he would be needing a new chief deputy. “I don’t know anything about being a chief,” Jim stated wryly.
“Don’t worry about that. You’ve got all you need to work with,” H.Q. reassured him. “You’ve got the education and the background. I’ll get you up to speed on the day to day.”
On Thursday, August 3, 1978, after a divisive but spirited campaign, H.Q. Evatt was once again elected to the office of the sheriff of Hamilton County. He wasted no time in appointing Jim as his new chief deputy. Jim’s first order of business would be to attend the Chattanooga Police Department’s Police Academy, graduating with the class of 1979. Fully certified now, he set to work getting to know the comings and goings of the agency.
For the next 17 years, Jim faithfully served the citizens of Hamilton County with distinction. The chief enjoyed many successes over the course of his time as Chief Deputy.
During his tenure, Jim earned a master’s degree of criminal justice in the summer of 1980. He would parlay this into a second career as an adjunct professor of criminal justice at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a career he would continue to enjoy until 1994.
He also served on the boards of numerous state and local agencies including the Tennessee Sheriff s’ Association, Hamilton County 911 Emergency Communica tions, Valley Psychiatric Hospital, Teen Challenge, and as a Trustee of Tennessee Temple University. He was also a founding member of the Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers Association. He even served as mayor of Ridgeside, Tennessee, the neighborhood in which he resided.
In 1994, after many years of faithful public service, H.Q. Evatt decided to retire from the sheriff ’s office. Jim announced his intention to run for office that same year and formed a campaign staff to set about the business of getting elected. Unfortunately, Jim lost the election by the narrowest of margins.
In 1995, he was recruited by the United States Department of Justice’s International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP). He would find himself landing in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as a member of a small contingent of International Police Instructors tasked with starting up a police force for the Haitian government.
Over the next decade, he would assist in training thousands of law enforcement officers around the world including assignments in Haiti, Russia, Colombia, Mexico, Albania, Moldova, Jordan, and Romania.
In 2003, Jim and Jeanie moved to Amman, Jordan, where they lived for three years while he served as Chief of Operational Policing and Training Manager of the prominent Jordanian International Training Center.
Return to Chattanooga
Jim’s tour of duty in the Middle East came to a close in December 2006. He and Jeanie had been in the states for only a few weeks when their youngest daughter, Sundi, was found deceased on February 5, 2007, the victim of an unintentional overdose, after struggling with long-term substance abuse. She was 27 years old. Jim and Jeanie were devastated.
Jim needed to get his mind off of the loss they had suffered, and plunged into work to keep himself distracted. His old friend Emerson Russell hired him as a Director of Training for ERMC’s Security Division, which the veteran lawman fulfilled until the following spring of 2008.
Early on a Saturday morning in 2008 a knock came at the door. The couple’s son, Jimi, opened the door to find a friend of the sheriff ’s office standing in the door way, clutching a copy of a federal indictment that he’d been handed earlier that morning by the FBI. “Is the Chief home?” he asked solemnly. Jimi escorted him to the living room, where his father greeted the officer and invited him to sit.
For the next ten minutes, the two sat in silence as Jim flipped through the pages of the indictment, reading through a list of charges brought against the current sheriff of Hamilton County.
Though nothing was mentioned that day of his intentions, Jim knew that his hometown would need a leader. The agency he had come to know and love was suff ering a dreadful moment in its nearly 200-year-old history.
The Door Swings Back Open
A special election would be held to fulfill the remaining two years of the present, indicted sheriff . The phone began to ring off the hook that day with calls for him to run. But Jim had been through this before. He decided to consult his family. One by one, he would sit with them and listen to their thoughts on the subject. Unsurprisingly, though, all fully supported his decision to seek the office of sheriff . Thus through a special election Jim became sheriff in the summer of 2008.
So much had changed since he had last sat in the office, with many of the individ uals he had hired now seasoned officers.
During the next 14 years, he would accomplish a list of goals, including a mounted horse patrol and new retirement plans, aff ectionately referred to as “The Bridge Plan.” He expanded the IT Division from a meager staff of three to 10. He allocated funds to purchase countless laptops, desktops, in-car video systems, body cams, and various other technologies, fundamentally modernizing the way the agen cy conducted business. In 2018, he orchestrated the management handoff of the Silverdale Detention Facility from Hamilton County General Government to the sheriff ’s office. Also that year, no small feat in its own right, he successfully negotiated the first substantial pay raise for law enforcement officers in over 20 years.
In 2018, he announced that his third term would be his last. He thus set about pre paring the Hamilton County Sheriff ’s Office for a new leader in 2022.