John Ben Shepperd: Texas Sheriff’s Association

July 22, 1957

Texas Sheriff’s Association and Crime Seminar (Houston, Texas)


This is the first time I have had the opportunity of appearing before you as a private citizen and not as a fellow Law Enforcement officer.

I’m very flattered that you have allowed me to come back and mingle with you socially, now that I’m only an ex Law Enforcement officer. I do miss the old life—the charged atmosphere, the great challenges, the bold decisions, the agonizing reappraisals, the hasty apologies.

Actually, it’s an advantage to be able to talk to you as an ex Law Enforcement officer because I’ve had time as a private citizen to reexamine all the preaching I did as a public official and I’m happy to say that I have not yet changed my tune or eaten any of my words.

As a matter of fact, since I left public office I haven’t eaten. I’m convinced that the best reason for entering public service is not the call of the people but the howl of the creditors.

I used to sit back in my office in Austin, contemplating my election, and thank the Lord for the wisdom of the people. Now I thank Him for the depletion allowance.

Another nice thing about getting out of public office is that you can mingle with your children without a formal introduction. They soon get accustomed to see you around the house even though they can’t figure out exactly where you fit into the picture.

It’s good to be able to finish a meal without being interrupted by the telephone and it’s nice to pick up a morning paper and enjoy the latest calamity in the state government along with your coffee without having to dictate a statement denying everything that’s happened in the last 24 hours.

There’s not much change in the number of phone calls you get in the middle of the night. When you’re in office, it’s usually a “cussin’ call” from somebody you’re trying to put in jail and after you leave office, it’s generally a friend who wants you to get him out.

But I guess the best thing about being a civilian again is getting away from disgruntled constituents. In Austin all the state officials are issued license plates on which they number is preceded by the letters “SO”, standing for state official. I just presumed it was a disgruntled constituent with a paint brush who added a large “B” on mine.

There are other definite advantages to quiet civilian life. In the state capital you’re just another official, but in a small city in West Texas, you’re a big shot. I used to walk down the street in Austin and people would say, “There’s that little squirt”. Now I walk down the street in Odessa and people say, “There’s that big drip”.

In any event I understand and appreciate your problems. This business of being a sheriff is not an easy one. A sheriff has to have the eye of an Indian Scout so he can follow the trail of public opinion, avoid being ambushed along the way and cover his tracks.

His life is never an easy one.  If he doesn’t make an arrest, he’s derelict in his duty and if he does, he’s just doing it to get public attention. In the event the case is lost, he’s a bad sheriff and if it’s won, it’s because he has good deputies and an easy court.

He has to stand on his own record while his opponent is jumping on it and if he doesn’t brag about his record, people think he got into office through pull and then stopped pulling. If he stays in hot water, he’s accused of being a hot-head and if he doesn’t, he’s got cold feet.

He works under more pressure than a deep-sea diver and takes more criticism than a poor man with an ambitious mother-in-law. He suffers greater temptations than a shoplifter in Fort Knox and he’s expected to be everywhere at once with his eyes open, like a chaperone at a Senior Prom on a warm spring night.

Despite the fact that you now have four years terms, election time is almost here again and the usual tension and high feeling are building up. This isn’t because there are two sides to every question but because there are two sides to every office—inside and outside. When you have a situation like that, there’s no problem too small to be turned in to a crisis. A crisis, by the way, is something you create to justify your next move or that somebody else created to justify your removal. Politicians, particularly those out of office, are finding things that haven’t even been stolen and spotting crimes that haven’t even been committed.

There’s no doubt about it, politics keeps you on your toes. Otherwise, you’d be caught flat-footed.

I am afraid we are going to be caught flat-footed in another respect too as a result of a series of far reaching cases by the United States Supreme Court. This Court has been snapping up powers from state and local enforcement officials with reckless abandon. It has superimposed its own political theory over our Constitutional law and unless something is done, state and county lines will soon be erased.

In the Jencks case the Supreme Court held that files of the F.B.I. must be opened to fishing expeditions by defense lawyers in criminal cases. I need not remind you of the serious effect an extension of this doctrine to the procedures of state courts would have upon your job as sheriffs. It would dry up your sources of information; it would change your methods of investigation of cases; it would give defendants a decided advantage over the state in the trial of cases—this in the face of an almost insurmountable wall that you have to climb in order to get a conviction in Texas now.

In the Mallory case the Supreme Court set free a convicted rapist by invalidating his conviction on the ground that there was “unnecessary delay in arraigning him after his arrest”. The decision in this case places an almost impossible handicap upon Law Enforcement by making it doubtful if you can even question a criminal suspect.

In the field of Communism we find that through a series of cases, not only state but federal controls of Communism and subversive activities have been erased from the law. Communism is now a political theory and its doctrine of forceable [sic] overthrow of our government can now be taught and advocated just as long as those so teaching or advocating do not take part in the forceable [sic] overthrow of our government or directly incite others to do so. It does not take a fertile imagination to see the nefarious doctrine of these cases extended to the point of permitting the operation of a school or the open advocacy of teaching citizens to become dope addicts, burglars, rapists, murderers or what have you.

There is no doubt but these decisions have done a great deal to destroy the confidence of our people in Law Enforcement and recent decisions of our own Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in the Duval, Veterans Land and other cases have done even more to break down the respect of the layman for the law and for Law Enforcement generally.

Of course our best defense against a lamentable situation of this sort is an offense—the offense of doing our duty, performing the job we have before us, seeing that the rights of all people are protected in our state and local courts and resisting, through every official and personal action, federal encroachment into the business of local Law Enforcement.

We should resolve ourselves that the new system of probation and parole set up by the last session of our Legislature will work and that we are going to do all within our power to make it work. This must also be true of the other new laws dealing with Law Enforcement passed by the recent Legislature.

We must work with our prosecutors to clear up over-crowded dockets—on January 1 of this year there were more than 22,500 criminal cases untried even though peace officers and prosecutors had gathered enough evidence in each case for information and indictment. There is hardly a prosecutor in the state with enough paid help and it is very discouraging to sheriffs to arrest an offender five or six times on separate charges before an overworked and understaffed District Attorney can get him to trial on the first charge.

We are still hindered by old laws and possibly will be until that happy day at the end of the rainbow when our ancient code of criminal procedure is revamped. Our Penal Code is preposterously outmoded and hundreds of crimes are committed every year for which nobody can be convicted because of horse and buggy technicalities.

On top of all these things, the greatest obstacle to good Law Enforcement in Texas is the decent, law-abiding public.

The public cannot possibly understand your problems as well as you do because the public cannot sit in your position, do your job, live on your salary, experience your frustrations, share your personal pride in your organization or know how it feels to be responsible for protecting the lives and property of all the people and treating every citizen with complete impartiality.

Nor can you blame the public for having sometimes only a fuzzy conception of what the Law Enforcement picture really is. The crime gets a bigger headline than the conviction because crime is bigger news than punishment. Citizens who obey the law and seldom see the inside of a courtroom are not acutely aware of the fact that the law is often a stone wall protecting the  accused, literally forcing the prosecutor to look for loopholes that permit prosecution.

The people have no way of knowing how too-willing criticism of their peace officers almost forces those peace officers to become competitive for public approval instead of being cooperative for the sake of efficiency. Law Enforcement agencies are the first to get the blame for any failure even when they are not at fault. They are trapped in a situation in which the failure to catch a criminal at all is not much worse than letting some other agency get the credit for catching him.

The big job of Law Enforcement authorities, therefore, is not merely to catch the thief and the killer, but to capture the public—to win its understanding and support.

That is the job that the Texas Law Enforcement Foundation is dedicated to helping you remedy. The primary purpose of TLEF is to make citizens of Texas aware of their part in Law Enforcement—to help them understand the law, gain public support and cooperation for Law Enforcement officials, keep competent, courageous men in the Law Enforcement jobs, help them receive a living wage, furnish them the tools of their profession and assist in the training of Law Enforcement officers dedicated to do their duty.

It is not the purpose of TLEF to criticize, supervise or prod the men who enforce the law. Our purpose is to help, not hinder, not harass.

Ninety prominent businessmen now comprise the Board of Directors of this organization and within its framework, peace officers work shoulder to shoulder with doctors, lawyers, bankers, oil men, ranchers and citizens of all walks of life. Their actions are constructive and positive; their aims are ambitious; their horizons are unlimited. The Foundation’s idea is simple but revolutionary and its potentialities are beyond the imagination.

A remarkable fact about this growing Texas organization is that instead of asking for government help, its primary purpose is to help government. This is the way Americans help to meet the  needs of modern society without increasing taxation, extending governmental authority over their lives or expecting agencies and bureaus to accomplish form them what ought to be accomplished with the heads, hearts and hands of the people. There is an example here for the citizens of all America and a warning for all who live by crime. And in that example and warning, there is also a prayer that the human misery and suffering wrought by crime might be lessened because citizens’ hands are stretched out to each other in cooperation for the common good of all.

[Note: The views expressed in this speech were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.]