By JB Clark
TUPELO – Every day, sheriff’s deputies in rural Mississippi counties drive thousands of miles, each deputy logging between 150 and 300 miles per shift on long and winding roads identified only by a number or community-given name.
In Lee County, which measures 488 square miles, numbered county roads wind through the county like veins for more than 780 miles.
In the 418-square-mile Prentiss County, the roads are similarly extensive.
In 2012, Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said his deputies drove 1.6 million miles while patrolling and responding to calls.
For this reason most of the deputies work in counties where they grew up, or have at least spent a good portion of their lives.
Prentiss County Sheriff Randy Tolar said he and his chief deputy often hire deputies who are not only native to Prentiss County but have experience in his department.
“When you hire someone and put them on the road, it makes sense to hire someone with knowledge of the roads,” Tolar said. “When I hire, as far as the deputies go, I look within the department first – like dispatch or the jail.”
Tolar said a good dispatcher often makes a good deputy because they have a mental map of the county.
When Tolar began working in law enforcement in 1981 as a dispatcher, there was no rhyme or reason to the way roads were identified.
Since then, Prentiss County’s 911 system has come a long way. The county is divided by numbered highways, and between each numbered highway is a different sub-section with road numbers in the 1000s, 2000s and so on.
“That way, if you don’t know where the road is, you at least know which direction to head while you look,” Tolar said.
The house numbers also indicate how far down the road a house is. A house number of 822 means a house is 8.2 miles down the road and is probably the second house on the left at the 8.2 mile mark.
Assistant jail administrator and part-time deputy Ricky Peebles spent most of his life in Philadelphia, Miss., and said the road numbering system in Prentiss County helped him tremendously when he moved there.
“I really don’t even have to think about it any more,” he said.
In Lee County, deputies say the roads make less sense, but they have other ways of navigating. Most deputies use a GPS to some degree, but outside of city centers, satellite coverage and map accuracy can be spotty.
Johnson said all Lee County roads had been named when he began working as a deputy, but they were switched to numbers in the late 1990s.
“They can change the numbers and roads as much as they want, though,” Johnson said. “There are always landmarks in every little community. There is always a church or a cemetery to go by.”
The shift leaders in Johnson’s department will have new deputies ride along with a supervising officer for a few shifts before allowing them to take it easy on the county roads alone.
Since Lee County has five deputies on most shifts and only four zones to cover (each zone divided at the intersection of Highway 45 and Highway 78), a floating deputy can fill in the gaps of a new deputy.
“When we put them in a car, we won’t put a lot of pressure to respond to calls quickly, and we’ll use our fifth deputy to fill in the gaps,” said Lee County Sgt. Alan McCormick. “We’ll tell them to take their time responding to calls until they know the roads, not to get too crazy on the way to a call.”
McCormick said he also makes his deputies rotate into different patrol zones so the road layout stays fresh in their minds.
Lee County Deputy Will Morgan said many deputies associate patrol areas with previous calls.
“Every day you’ll hear a call come over and then someone say, ‘Where is that?’ and someone else will say, ‘You remember, that’s where ol’ so-and-so stole something,’ and then they’ll remember where to go.”
Lee County Cpl. Michael Patterson said his first night on patrol, he was called out to County Road 154 and hasn’t forgotten the road since.
“I was riding around Zone 4 with my sergeant, and we got a call to County Road 145 in Zone 3,” Patterson said. “He just stuck me in a car and told me to go. I always remember 154 from that night.”
Lee County Deputy Terry Robinson said it helps that all but two of the deputies in the department grew up in Lee County. Part of Johnson’s deputy application asks applicants to give him directions from their house to the jail so he can assess the way they give directions.