By Denise Clay
You couldn’t blame Jewell Williams if he wondered what he had gotten himself into after the May primary. Williams, a longtime legislator who had also served as chief of the Criminal Division of the Sheriff’s Office under retired Sheriff John Green, had just won the right to represent the Democrats as the city’s new sheriff.
Meanwhile, there was a movement afoot to get rid of the office altogether due to some of the things that occurred under Green. A check fraud scheme cost the office $400,000 and led to federal indictments. City Controller Alan Butkovitz did an audit that found accounting irregularities.
While the push to abolish the office wasn’t successful, sources say that City Council plans to introduce a bill that would take the financial responsibilities that the office takes care of, such as sheriff’s sales, and give them to the City Treasurer.
But while Williams, who became the new Sheriff officially earlier this month, knows that there are people out there who question whether the office should continue to exist, he plans to answer those questions by having an office that’s transparent, well-managed, and accountable to the people of Philadelphia.
In this interview with the SUN, Williams talks about his vision for the office, what he hopes it will contribute to the city as it fights crime, and his hopes for his old office.
SUN: Thank you for the time today Sheriff Williams. You were a legislator in a seat that you won handily every election cycle. What made you decide to run for this office instead?
JW: The House of Representatives has changed. Democrats are in the minority now because we lost seats last election. I wouldn’t have as much power to pass meaningful legislation that would help people. So I decided to run so that I could help people.
SUN: You’ve had prior experience in the Sheriff’s office.
JW: I was the Chief of the Criminal Division. We handle law enforcement functions like serving warrants and provide security for the courts.
SUN: Is there anything from the experience that you hope to bring to the Sheriff’s office now that you preside over everything? Are there any issues you hope to tackle?
JW: One of the issues that we have is that we’re understaffed. We’re 35 deputies down. In order to do our job more efficiently, we need to fix that. As a former legislator, I know how to lobby City Council. I also know how to lobby my former colleagues in Harrisburg. I plan to use those relationships to make our office run more efficiently.
SUN: Before you became the new Sheriff, there was talk about abolishing the Sheriff’s office as an elected position. The argument for the move was that a lot of the Sheriff’s functions could be given to other city departments and the money saved could help the city pay down its debts. What do you think about that and how do you plan on showing critics why the department should continue to exist in its current form?
JW: I plan to have a transparent office with open records that can be accessed. I’m working to bring new technology into the office that will help make that happen. I’ve instituted a policy that says employees and their family members can’t participate in Sheriff’s sales. I also hired Ben Hayllar, who was the finance director for Mayor Ed Rendell. I look at it this way. If there’s a problem with the Water Department, you wouldn’t abolish it, would you?
SUN: One of the issues that Sheriff Green was facing before he decided to retire was the issue of some missing money. Has that issue been resolved?
JW: All of the monies have been accounted for.
SUN: Are there any programs that you’re hoping to create or continue for the Sheriff’s department?
JW: We will be working to keep the foreclosure program that Sheriff Green started going. We’ll be working with the public to help them find ways to keep their homes and to educate them about their options. We’re also hoping to be able to help the police more with law enforcement as soon as we get our full compliment of deputies.
SUN: I wanted to ask a question regarding the seat that you just left, representative for the 197th District. A special election for that seat is coming up and I understand that one of the candidates for it is your daughter, Jewel. What did you think when she came to talk to you about running and what advice have you given her?
JW: She asked me about running and I said she should run. She has the right to run. She’s seen me spend most of my life in public service so it made sense. She worked as my intern and she’s done a lot of work in the community. We need to encourage young people to get into public service. So of course, I support her. I’m going to do everything I can to help her win.
SUN: Thanks so much for your time Sheriff Williams, and good luck to you in your new position.
JW: Thank you…