For just shy of 50 years, Waynesboro residents have only had to remember one name as their sheriff — Joe Harris.
Retired city sheriff Joe Harris Sr. joined the Waynesboro Police Department in 1960 and became sheriff in 1974, a post he held for 27 years. His son and current sheriff, Joe Harris Jr., took the helm on Aug. 1, 2000. Harris Jr. was elected as sheriff for five consecutive terms, four of which were unopposed. After 21 years, Harris Jr. is retiring from the position.
Harris’ retirement is necessitated because of a move outside of Waynesboro. Because the sheriff is considered a constitutional officer, he must live within city limits to continue being sheriff.
“It’s humbling and it’s amazing the support that I’ve had throughout the years. It’s been fun,” Harris Jr. said.
Harris Jr. particularly thanks his dad for being a role model, his mom who talked him into applying to become sheriff, and his wife who has been supportive of him.
The younger Harris started with WPD in February of 1980. In 1987, he was one of the first original members of the city’s SWAT team. By February 1988, Harris Jr. was promoted to corporal and then sergeant in 1990.
“He is one of the best sergeants I ever had. I started at age 20, so I’ve known him for 31 years,” said Becky Meeks, now a captain at WPD. “He has been nothing but the most respectable, honorable gentlemen. He is the epitome of what you want an officer to be.”
Harris Jr. moved to special operations around 1994 and spent his last two years with the police department in support services.
“Joe and I have worked together in some capacity for over 25 years. Joe has been an inspiration and a mentor to me as well as countless other law enforcement officers for more than four decades,” Waynesboro Police Chief Mike Wilhelm said. “He has earned the respect of his peers and community members because of his tireless work ethic, compassion and dedication to service. Joe exemplifies what it is to be a truly ‘good human being,’ and we are going to miss him immensely.”
Since the police department used to be located on the side of the Thomas L. Gorsuch Municipal Building where the sheriff’s office is now located, Harris Jr. has spent all 41 years of his law enforcement career walking through the same front door.
As sheriff, one of Harris Jr.’s top priorities was safety. He oversaw changes to the way transports were done to increase safety of both officers and the person being transported, started full-time use of metal detectors at the courthouse entrance, installed cameras in courtrooms and made sight safety improvements inside and outside.
“When I first started as an officer, we’d maybe encounter someone with a gun once every six months. Now it’s almost daily for officers,” he said. “(As sheriff) you think about officer safety as well as the safety of anyone coming to the courthouse.”
Waynesboro’s Sheriff Department is running on the same full-time staff it has been since 1978 — the sheriff, four deputies and a secretary — who manage all civil processing, evictions, repossessions, transports and courthouse security. Harris Jr. would like to see the department add more staff in the future for safety reasons.
Two Waynesboro Police Officers, Christopher Johnson Jr. and Jessie Shaver, are vying for the vacancy Harris Jr. leaves behind. While Harris Jr. isn’t endorsing a candidate in the November election, he says police experience will aid them both.
“It’s helpful in the fact that they know the city and they know the people in the city,” Harris Jr. said. “It’s certainly a different job, and I’ve enjoyed even more respect as sheriff than as a police officer.”
His advice to his successor is simply to listen.
“The biggest thing is for the new sheriff to be approachable and understand that what the person you’re talking to sees as a crisis might not look like it to you, but people want to be heard. You need to take the time, stop and listen,” Harris Jr. said.
Harris Jr.’s last day as sheriff is July 31. His chief deputy will serve as interim sheriff until the November election.