Sullivan County, TN is known as the birthplace of country music and the home of NASCAR’s Bristol Motor Speedway races. 70 miles east, Ashe County, NC is best known for its Christmas trees, where tens of thousands of trees grow on hillsides and make their way to living rooms across the nation every winter. Both counties are located in the Blue Grass Mountains of Appalachia, with Sullivan in the foothills and Ashe at elevations as high as 4000 feet.
While both counties cover approximately 400 square miles, their populations are quite different–Sullivan is home to 150,000 people, and Ashe only 27,000. The relative size of the two county jails tells the tale of crime rates. The Sullivan jail holds nearly 800 inmates and is often full. In 2012, the state of Tennessee ranked #1 in the nation in violent crime calculated on a per capita basis. Ashe County jail, a state-of-the-art facility, holds 200 and normally “rents out” half its space to house North Carolina State inmates.
The Sullivan County and Ashe County Sheriffs’ Offices provide the National Geographic Channel unprecedented access to follow the peace-keeping process in Appalachia. From 24/7 ride-alongs with deputies to real-time crime investigations to personal drama inside jails and courtrooms.
Sheriffs Wayne Anderson of Sullivan and James Williams of Ashe, both natives of the area, are fans of the 50-year-old hit TV series “The Andy Griffith Show.” They feel deputies in the Blue Grass area need to have a “little bit of Andy” in them–a “tough love” approach to law enforcement, requiring compassion and respect for even the toughest criminals, at least until they prove that a show of force is necessary. Both counties are equipped with K-9 and SWAT units comparable to those of major cities. Assault weapons are part of every deputy’s in-car arsenal.
While moonshine once gave way to marijuana as a top source of trouble in both counties, today methamphetamine-making, prescription drug addiction, new “designer drugs” like “bath salts” and “gravel,” and the never-ending issues associated with alcoholism account for nearly 90 percent of crime in the area.
Most Sullivan and Ashe Sheriff employees grew up in the area. So both counties are “big small towns” where everybody knows everybody. With most patrol cars carrying only one deputy, back-up can often be thirty minutes away. So it’s not unusual for long-standing relationships to pay off when a neighbor needs to provide unexpected help to a single deputy needing help.
On Southern Justice, what you see is what you get. Some stories have happy endings, some not. But the unique combination of “action and compassion” make the philosophies of both departments unique in the world of American law enforcement.
Tune in to Southern Justice: Blueridge Bloodshed tonight at 9P.