Proud to Serve
Hendricks County Sheriff Brett Clark Embraces Every Aspect of the Job
Photographer: Amy Payne
As a teenager, Hendricks County Sheriff Brett Clark had big plans that involved graduating from Purdue, landing a job as a chemical engineer and purchasing a Porsche 911. Ultimately, none of that came to fruition.
“My dad was a state trooper for 31 years. I knew about the terrible hours and never had any intention of pursuing the same line of work,” Clark says.
Nevertheless, a couple years into college, life brought him full-circle, back to the very career he thought he wanted to avoid. After joining the Navy but being honorably discharged due to a heart issue, he applied to be an officer at the Hendricks County jail.
“I think God puts you where you’re supposed to be,” says Clark, who took the job on September 18, 1989.
He was hired as a Hendricks County police officer in January 1990 and has never left, having worked his way through a number of positions and appointments. He’s always embraced the freedom the career brings as well as the opportunity to help people in the community.
“In this job, you get to see people at their best and their worst,” he says.
Being named sheriff in 2015 was a real honor for Clark. His responsibilities are multiplied from when he was a deputy. In addition to concerns about crime rates, drug scourge and a rise in mental illnesses, he has to focus on a number of administrative tasks.
“Being in charge of the jail, I’m a hotel manager and building manager, which means I have to think about things like the prices of toilets and feminine hygiene products,” Clark says. “Plus, there are dietary needs and health issues that you never have to consider as a police officer.”
In addition, as sheriff, he must be mindful of the budget and be a good steward of taxpayers’ money.
Clark, now in his 29th year in the profession, is on the ballot, running unopposed. After this next term, he’ll have to step down as it’s a term-limited position. Indiana is one of three states that has a two-consecutive-term limit.
In the past three decades, Hendricks County has experienced phenomenal growth. The Hendricks County Sheriff’s Department, however, is still operating in the same jail that was built in 1973 (with an addition erected in 1989).
“It’s a constant challenge to limp our old jail along,” Clark says. “But to have endured such growth and still be in the same jail for three decades is due to the outstanding communication, cooperation and collaboration among us, the judges, the prosecutors, the probation department and the work release center.”
All of these entities meet regularly as sort of a justice council thanks to a project called EBDM (Evidence-Based Decision Making).
“We’re looking at best practice as well as evidence-based criteria on which to make more efficient decisions going forward to better serve our community,” Clark says. “That could be pre-trial, pre-arrest or any person going through the criminal justice system.”
Collaboration and communication is the only reason that a fast-growing county with 160,000 people living in it can maintain a jail with just 252 beds.
“Unless you’re involved in the system, most people don’t understand what we even do here,” Clark says. “Folks may drive by and assume our operation is like Otis in Mayberry, thinking we have 50 guys when today we have 300 in here.”
In the future, the county will have to erect a new jail, and when they do it will likely be a podular design that has a central command center with pods around it. Not only does the design provide a 360-degree visual observation to monitor inmates via closed-circuit screens, but it also allows for future expansion. A jail project is a tremendous undertaking that will involve big-time discussion among taxpayers.
“A jail in a community isn’t something that everyone wants, but it’s a necessary thing and we have a duty to everyone to do it right,” says Clark, noting that it takes funding, approval, votes and location.
“When the fairgrounds moved a decade ago, that was the thought — to sit on this property for future growth, as needed,” Clark says. “It’s good because oftentimes other jurisdictions around the state have had problems if they’re landlocked on the downtown squares.”
The next thing is figuring out how to fund it so it’s equitably shared among the taxpayers.
“You can’t just burden the property owners or the workers,” Clark says. “It needs to be some kind of combination of income tax, public safety tax and property taxes so the burden is shared.”
Clark cares about community members because people are his favorite part of the job. For instance, when he attends the county fair, dozens of kids run up to him looking for a high-five or a hug. He also regularly receives cards from community members thanking him for the kindness shown to them by Hendricks County officers.
“It’s about how you treat people,” says Clark, whose number one focus has always been on public service. “If we come to your house at your worst moment and treat you with kindness, compassion and care, that goes further than anyone can imagine. We have a tremendous group of men and women here who never cease to impress me with their professionalism and concern.”
Whenever Clark interviews potential candidates for deputy sheriff, he always asks them why they were drawn to the profession. Their response is almost always, “I want to help people.”
While that’s admirable, Clark knows that such enthusiasm can wane over time. Not only that but long-term PTSD in law enforcement tends to wear people down slowly. So, he encourages all newbie cops to read the book “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families” by Kevin M. Gilmartin. The book talks about hypervigilance: “the necessary manner of viewing the world from a threat-based perspective, having the mindset to see the events unfolding as potentially hazardous.”
Where most people have normal ups and downs in life — we go to work, come home and engage in normal routines with spouses and children, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and attend the occasional funeral — while on duty, police officers have to operate on high alert. For instance, they have to make sure to approach a car in a certain way or enter a room in a certain manner. They are always in a constant state of readiness in order to remain safe.
“The hypervigilance rollercoaster is tough because, on the one hand, the job is Dukes of Hazzard exciting,” Clark says. “On the other hand, the body and mind can only take so much.”
Clark also encourages his staff to practice wellness through physical activity, faith and spending time with family and friends. As for Clark, he enjoys yoga, motorcycling, watching football and relaxing with his wife Karie. Though he never did get that Porsche 911, he’s not complaining.
“Every day is a new adventure, and I love it,” Clark says. “I can’t think of a better job.”