Sheriff Gerald Couch doesn’t come from a family legacy of law enforcement, although a fictional law enforcement legend is perched on his office shelf.
“That’s one of my prized possessions,” he said, eyeing a signed picture of the cast of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
The portrait of Andy Griffith, Don Knotts and others sits among the books, certifications and accolades that line Couch’s newly inhabited office at the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.
Couch didn’t plan on being there. In fact, it wasn’t even his intention to be a deputy in the office.
“In high school, I studied forestry and horticulture,” he said. “When I was growing up, I had a huge interest in that. I thought it’d be a good job to have to contribute to society, and get to work outdoors.
“After I graduated high school, I was going to look for a career with the (U.S.) Forest Service or Department of Natural Resources, but at that time, there was a hiring freeze,” he said. “I ran into a deputy that I had grown up with, and he said, ‘Why don’t you try to get a job with us at the sheriff’s office? And you know, later on maybe you can go with the park service, or become a forest ranger.’”
Couch went to the office, took a test, got his results and interviewed with then newly elected Sheriff Richard Mecum, now Hall County Board of Commissioners chairman.
“He hired me about 15 minutes later, and for the next 30 years I worked at the sheriff’s office,” Couch said. “I found my home here. It wasn’t a hard decision to make.”
If he thinks back far enough, Mecum said, he can remember when he hired Couch.
“He was young — 18 or 19 I think,” he said. “But just in talking to him, I could tell he was eager. He wanted to get a hold of something and run with it.”
It was a time of adaptation for the office, Mecum said.
“The citizens of Hall County were wanting a major change. Community growth was headed toward Hall County,” he said. “People wanted a system in place that could answer the growing columns they could see in certain areas of crime.”
Mecum sought to bring young deputies to the office. He needed blank slates, without preconceived ideas about law enforcement but an eagerness to learn and innovate.
“We desperately needed young people who didn’t know a lot about law enforcement, actually,” Mecum said. “Gerald was one of the first ones I hired in 1981.
“Gerald fit that to a T. He wanted to make a mark, and he did.”
Couch’s long career in the office was interrupted by about 10 months when he ascended to the No. 2 leadership position in the Gainesville Police Department in 2011.
“The position with the city of Gainesville came open, and I thought, ‘Well, this is a great opportunity for me to still be able to serve in this community, and make some changes that I wanted to make,’ and I thought I’d be able to benefit,” Couch said. “I had no intentions of leaving. It was a great department, good people and I thoroughly enjoyed my job over there.”
Former Sheriff Steve Cronic had announced early on that he would not seek re-election. But it wasn’t until later, once the campaign was under way, that Couch decided to seek the office.
“As I saw the race for the sheriff’s office unfolding, I did not see what I thought was a good solution, or a good candidate for that position,” he said. “So I made the decision after a great deal of thought to enter the race, and see if I could become elected and serve even more so on a leadership level.”
Now 30 years after Mecum hired Couch, Hall County remains an area where growth is steadfast.
“Growth is not going to stop, and they know that. We’re not in a vacuum,” Mecum said.
Today’s changes are evident at the sheriff’s office — administratively, organizationally, even cosmetically.
The walls have fresh paint and the front of the building will undergo major changes: Rather than have visitors flag down the attention of busy clerks, Couch said, a certified officer will sit at a brand-new front office desk when the renovations are complete.
“It’s part of our commitment to the customer service aspect of the office,” he said.
Not that Couch is pre-occupied with appearances. He noted that the car refurbishment plan he presented to the commission last week will put cars on the street with a solid white or black scheme, saving them $2,300 per car that an intricate gold paint job costs.
Finding ways to streamline the budget has always been a keen goal.
“We’re in a much better position than we were last year or several years before, but we’ve got a ways to go to completely get back on our feet again,” he said. “We have to look at new and innovative ways of saving the taxpayer money and not increase our budget. That is of prime importance. I’m not going to ask for any increases in our budget. We’ve got to work within our means.”
Attending to the day-to-day needs of the office is an enormous undertaking.
“I come in and usually have messages and emails waiting on me,” he said. “My week starts to fill up from the previous week. Usually around Wednesday, Thursday, Friday of the previous week, I’m already booked up for the next one.”
He meets daily with government officials, judges, the media and other community leaders.
And there are frequent check-ins with his command staff, Majs. Kevin Head and John Latty.
“We discuss department business, go over the budgets and our needs and how we’re going to fund some of the programs we want to put in place,” he said.
And those needs are constant, he said.
“Equipment is always an issue, trying to secure the money to purchase equipment. Right now, it’s cars — patrol cars.”
For the once aspiring park ranger, Couch’s schedule doesn’t leave much time for the outdoors.
“I love to go hiking and kayaking, but all those things have been put on hold for a while,” he said.
But like any selfless public servant would say, Couch is all right with that.
“It does provide for some fairly long days, but that’s also what we’re supposed to do,” he said.