Voices of County Government - Sheriff Brian Hawthorne

By County magazine

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How long have you been the Chambers County Sheriff?

I have been in office for 5.5 years. I was sworn in on Jan. 1, 2013. 

Prior to your election, what kind of work did you do? What got you interested in running for office?

I was with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and was in the Highway Patrol Division. While there, I got involved with the Department of Public Safety Association (DPSOA) and became very active on the legislative committee, starting in 1999, ultimately becoming the legislative chairman in 2001. I spent a lot of time at the Capitol. I later became the president of the DPSOA
in 2003.

Then one of my former highway patrol partners, Ed Caine, decided to run for Harden County sheriff. We’re still good friends. I saw how he made a very professional transition when taking over as sheriff. I admired him for that and I thought that I want to leave this Earth a better place. I watched him do that and, I wanted to do that, too.

When considering running for office, I was approached by DPS Director Steve McCraw who asked if I’d be interested in working for him as a legislative liaison for DPS. I accepted in 2011. At the end of the year, I retired. I had politics in my blood after working at the Capitol for more than 10 years. I wanted to make an improvement in county government, and so I ran. 

What was the biggest surprise or adjustment after taking office? 

The biggest surprise was going from a supervisor of troopers to supervisor of deputies. They are very different in the duties. In the sheriff’s office, we deal with types of crimes that I never saw in DPS that can be hard to deal with — especially crimes against children. I didn’t have to deal with those types of criminal investigations. I had no idea how many children become victims of abuse and violence. That was a big shock — a sad one.

As far as adjustments, understanding it takes time to affect change. One of the pieces of advice given to me by McCraw was that it’s very difficult to see real change to anything in less than five years. When he said that — it really didn’t sink in. I thought I could do it faster. But those words were so true!

I started making change right away but feeling like it was actually improving people’s lives — five years was a realistic statement. I’m now at 5.5 years and I feel like we have made a positive change and am still headed in that direction.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced, and what advice would you give your peers across the state that may face the same or similar challenges?

There are two things county government always struggles with — and it doesn’t matter the size of the county — trying to keep salaries competitive with police and DPS. It’s a huge challenge. You must keep staff motivated so they want to stay with you and not try for higher paying jobs. 

The biggest challenge this year has been with the county jail. Trying to keep staff motivated while working with an inmate population with little respect for society or you and your staff. It’s hard.

For me, trying to balance the salaries with the needs of the county and keeping the commissioners court educated on what it takes to run and manage the jail is the big challenge. It’s a huge expense — nobody enjoys any aspect of the county jail, but it is an absolute must. Commissioners and judges need to balance the funding, so I try to keep them informed on the conditions and costs, like the Sandra Bland Act. There is no funding laid out for it, so we have to figure out how to fund it. 

Fortunately, I work with exceptional people. There is nothing more rewarding than being a sheriff of a county that appreciates strong law enforcement and a judge and county commissioners who support the right thing in law enforcement. I feel very fortunate for that.

Since taking office, what accomplishment are you most proud of?

I my first term I hired school resources officers for two of our school districts because they struggle financially. They couldn’t pay for
their own officers, so I convinced the county commissioners to fund resource officers.

I am also proud of our marine resources division. There are four supervisors and three deputies. We have 300 square miles of bay and marsh, so there is a lot of recreational boating. I try and keep a strong presence in the bay.

I also formed a special response team — our version of a SWAT team. But we use them for much more than that. It’s a 15-man team that has special assignments like high-
threat warrants.

What do you find are the most successful methods for reaching out to the residents of your county to communicate what your office is doing and why it’s doing it?

We’re a rural county between two major cities — we’re between Houston and Beaumont. I have learned to do everything I can to communicate well with newspapers because I don’t have TV news here. We also have a Facebook page with 15,000 followers. It’s a very successful page for a county of a little more than 40,000 residents. My wife is also an elected official (Chambers County Clerk Heather Hawthorne) and we both spend a lot of time in the public. We’re very public in the county.

When you’re not at work, what are you doing? Do have any hobbies or something interesting that may surprise your colleagues?

The one thing I enjoy the most is fishing and I’m in a great area for that. I’m also a duck hunter and raise Labradors. My passion is black Labs; I have two right now. I’m a member of the Port Arthur Retrievers Club. It’s a member organization — the oldest American Kennel Club in Texas. We host hunt trials to show the dogs’ talents and how well they retrieve and take commands. It takes a lot of time to make a great hunting dog.

What is your favorite thing about Chambers County?

 I love its diversity. The west side is urban with progressive towns like Bayview, and the east is very rural with cattle ranches and rice farms. I get the best of both worlds. We also have Trinity Bay, with a lot of fishing and duck and goose hunting. The bird watching is great — bird watchers from all around the world come here. And Anahuac is known as the alligator capitol of Texas.