NASHVILLE (AP) — Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons said Tuesday that he had to send strong signals early in his tenure of heading the Tennessee Highway Patrol that the election of a new governor would not lead to favoritism for certain troopers.
In a speech to a group of Southeastern law enforcement officials, Gibbons said that Republican Gov. Bill Haslam insisted after his election in 2010 that only performance and merit should influence promotions and assignments.
“I’ll be honest, there was some people who were kind of surprised at that early on,” said Gibbons, who previously served as the top prosecutor in Shelby County.
“People now realize that we were going to make decisions in the highway patrol based on doing the right thing, and based on people’s performance,” he said. “And frankly it’s been a great feeling among almost everyone.”
Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen was forced to overhaul the agency following a lengthy series of scandals that included troopers with criminal records, allegations of ticket-fixing and a culture of cronyism and political arm-twisting.
A 2006 study by security consultant Kroll Inc. found that personnel matters at the Highway Patrol were “rife with political favoritism at the expense of competence.”
The study recommended that lawmakers and the governor consider a merger of the highway patrol and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation as a way to create a more professional state law-enforcement agency. But lawmakers have balked at creating a state police force in Tennessee, most recently rejecting even an attempt by THP leaders to rename the agency the Tennessee Patrol in 2011.
That move was spearheaded by the THP’s current commander, Col. Tracy Trott, who said it better reflected the range of troopers’ responsibilities beyond traffic enforcement.
The name change was not officially part of the Haslam administration’s legislative agenda, and was not reintroduced this year.
In another matter, Gibbons told reporters after his speech that efforts are underway to streamline the state’s complicated drunken-driving laws.
“Right now our DUI law is 58 pages long,” he said. “That’s compared to an 18-page first-degree murder death-penalty statute.”
The commissioner said the “patchwork” of laws should be clarified for both prosecutors and defense attorneys, as well as for drivers. He also suggested some updates to penalties.
“One example being, putting some additional provisions for mandatory treatment for those convicted of DUIs,” he said.
A decision on which changes to propose will be made by the start of the next legislative session in January, he said.