Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner opens up about his tenure, pandemic challenges and permitless handguns
After more than 41 years in law enforcement, Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner, Jr. thought he had seen everything there is to see and then March 2020 happened. Once the pandemic hit Shelby County and the United States, life as everyone knew it stood still and presented many challenges for the sheriff who holds charge of 783 square miles.
Bonner said the biggest hurdle was the unknown. He said, “This was a challenging time, especially during the early days of the pandemic as our nation was developing new protocols for people to follow to help protect themselves and others against the virus. There were a lot of unknowns that surrounded the coronavirus.”
“We had to address each new challenge with innovative and unique solutions. We relied on and followed the advice of the CDC and the Shelby County Health Department. For starters, we required our employees to wear face masks and to social distance when possible,” he said.
Bonner explained, “Unlike many other organizations and businesses, the vast majority of law enforcement and corrections personnel cannot work from home. They had to still enter the confined spaces of our jails, and respond to the calls for help from the public. My senior command staff and I worked through the challenges and found solutions for working in those confined spaces inside our jails. We implemented the recommended protocols for incoming new inmates to be quarantined and started new processes to clean and sterilize the jail environment as best as possible. This included the county installing a new HVAC system to purify the air in our jails. We are happy to report that there has not been a single inmate death because of COVID-19. I’m also saddened to report that I’ve lost three jail employees due to the COVID-19 virus.”
Bonner continued, “After the COVID-19 vaccines were released, my jail staff and the Shelby County Health Department, along with medically trained people from our Volunteer’s Services Bureau, created new processes to educate the inmates about the virus and the vaccines. The shot has been offered to any inmate who wishes to receive it; they can decline without any penalty.”
He said, “This has been a huge leadership challenge. I’m overall responsible for the safety of my employees while at work, as well as all our inmates. I’ve worked with my senior command staff to ensure all my employees implemented the new safety protocol standards for the virus. I’ve had 379 employees who tested positive for the virus, as well as 307 positive detainees. Since early this year, I’ve had over 1,200 cases of employees identified as having possible exposure to the virus who have returned to work after some level of screening. As you can imagine, manpower has been challenging at times because of the virus. With that said, I’m so proud of everyone in the Sheriff’s Office for going above and beyond the standards to ensure our daily mission is always accomplished.”
The pandemic has not been the only thing on the sheriff’s plate. Two areas in Shelby County were de-annexed from the City of Memphis at the end of 2020, South Cordova/Rocky Point, in the eastern part of Shelby County and Southwind/Windyke, in the southeast corner of the county. South Cordova/Rocky Point is a 3.6 square mile area south of Walnut Grove and east of Sanga, and north of Walnut Grove, east of Forest Hill-Irene, and extending towards Houston Levee. The area has approximately 1,500 residents. Southwind/Windyke is a 1.1 square mile area comprising Southwind residences and the golf course, as well as the area south of Winchester and east of Hacks Cross. The area has approximately 5,300 residents.
Bonner said the Tennessee district 9-1-1 office updated the 9-1-1 system to include all physical addresses and cross streets that transitioned to unincorporated Shelby County. GPS locations were loaded; therefore, cell phones located in those new areas will be properly routed to the Sheriff’s Office as well.
Deputies began regular patrol of those areas at that time…the beginning of the year 2021. It’s not just the patrol deputies affected by this change, but our detectives must also work increased criminal cases for those areas, and dispatchers answer more phone calls for service because of these new areas.
Bonner explained, “This is the second de-annexation in as many years as Eads, in the eastern part of Shelby County, and River Bottoms, in the southwest corner of Memphis and Shelby County. They were de-annexed December 31, 2019.” He smiled, “I must say a special thanks to the Shelby County Commission for increasing our manpower by 25 positions to support these added responsibilities.”
Another issue on Bonner’s mind is the new state law going into effect on July 1 that allows citizens to carry handguns without permits. He said, “The Tennessee Governor signed a new state law allowing for the permitless carry of handguns, effective July 1. However, there is no training required to accompany this law. My goal was to offer free education and training to any citizen who wanted to be a safer gun owner. Therefore, the sheriff’s office is offering free handgun safety classes, but no live weapons fire. The classes are taught by my certified firearms instructors…the same instructors who teach our deputy sheriffs. The inaugural class was held on May 22 at the SCSO Training Academy. Class attendees will learn about safe and proper weapons handling techniques, recommended ways to carry and secure your handgun, and some specifics from state law about when you can and cannot use deadly force. Also, we will discuss proper handgun safety during any interactions with law enforcement.”
Bonner wrapped up that topic with, “The choice to carry a handgun is a major decision in anyone’s life and that decision can affect the people around you if you mishandle your gun. We want the people who chose to carry a gun to understand the fundamentals of proper gun safety and to learn the state laws concerning the use of deadly force.”
So much has changed since Bonner joined the sheriff’s office in 1980. He said, “The basic principles of police work remain the same, but new technologies are a game-changer. For example, reports and case files used to be typed or written on paper, and researching information months or years later from all that paper was slow. Now, reports are typed into computer databases, and researching information from those databases only takes a few keystrokes and the information is available within minutes. This even includes databases for DNA, fingerprints, photographs, etc. In other examples, paper maps are no longer used by officers to find addresses, this task transitioned to using small GPS devices, and then to using any smart cell phone to provide you with turn-by-turn directions to an address. We also progressed from not having any recordings of our officer’s encounters with citizens, to having in-car video cameras with on-person audio-only recordings, to now having on-person video and audio recordings. Our weapons have also modernized, from officers carrying older style six-shot revolvers to newer semi-automatic pistols with a dozen or more bullets in multiple magazines.”
The culture is different, as well. Bonner said, “The rate of change has been rapid since I was sworn in. The social unrest across our nation has also driven change here at home. After George Floyd’s death, we reviewed and updated some of our policies and training, but we already had existing policies in place for most of the principles supporting the Eight Can’t Wait movement. The nation-wide Eight Can’t Wait recommendations were to ban chokeholds, require de-escalation, require a verbal warning before shooting, exhaust all alternatives before shooting, a duty to intervene, ban shooting at moving vehicles, require the use of force continuum, and lastly to require comprehensive reporting.”
As for the future of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, Bonner said, “I want to keep the sheriff’s office at the forefront of using proven new technologies to fight and solve crime. One of the newest examples of this capability is our use of integrated surveillance cameras throughout our county that quickly identifies vehicles and license plates that are stolen or wanted for other reasons. The cameras send that information to our dispatch office so that officers can be quickly sent to that area to locate the target vehicle. I am also committed to having a modernized juvenile detention facility that ensures quality education, rehabilitation, and addresses trauma.”
While there is very little downtime for Bonner, he said spending time with his wife of nearly 39 years, Audrey, is how he likes to spend his days. That and getting a little golf game in now-and-then.