Becoming Johnson County Sheriff
Johnson County Sheriff Duane Burgess Reflects On First Year In Office
Photographer / Amy Counts
Duane Burgess can still recall his early aspirations of becoming Johnson County Sheriff when he was 18 years old. Burgess, now 50, had started working for the fire department at the time, and the only reason he hadn’t started pursuing law enforcement – his ideal career path – was the simple fact that he wasn’t 21 yet.
“I always wanted to join the police department, even back in middle school and even elementary school. My friends from back then still tell me now that it was all I talked about,” Burgess says with a laugh.
Since law enforcement had to wait until he was 21, Burgess decided to join the White River Fire Department as a volunteer firefighter and first responder after graduating from Center Grove High School, to acquire some experience in public service for the southside community in which he’d grown up.
During his time with the fire department, Burgess also became a dispatcher for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department – a job that would serve as the starting point for a 30-year career in law enforcement that has included positions as a corrections officer, a security officer for the Johnson County courthouse, chief of police for Southport and, since January of 2019, Johnson County Sheriff.
“When I got on at the Sheriff’s Department as a young man, I set a goal for myself that I would someday become sheriff,” says Burgess, a 1992 grad of the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy. “I’ve had a lot of leaders before me that I’ve learned from and still converse with some of those and our retirees. I want to make a good mark here and really make a difference during my tenure.”
Since being sworn in as Johnson County Sheriff, Burgess says one of his top priorities has been improving the quality and effectiveness of officer training, as well as ongoing equipment upgrades.
“We’ve broadened the training at the Sheriff’s Office to be more conducive to what officers do every day, and what they’re handling,” he says. “We see crimes here where I have to use my SWAT guys and high-profile warrants where people can get hurt, and we have to be ready for those kinds of things. The future’s changing, and we’ve upgraded with new tasers and body cameras, which assist us in our everyday roles.”
The Sheriff’s Department has taken several steps to prepare for the upcoming county jail expansion including camera and audio system upgrades and new firearms.
“We’re trying to do whatever we can to save the taxpayer some money, and I’ve found money somewhere within my budget during the 2019 season to make a lot of purchases so I wouldn’t have to go to the (Johnson County) council to ask for additional funds,” Burgess says. “Right now my big focus is the jail. We’ve been crowded there for many years, which makes it difficult to do programs because we don’t have room.”
The Johnson County Board of Commissioners green-lighted a county jail expansion in October of 2019, with an estimated cost of $20 to $25M that will come from local income tax. The expansion will include approximately 74 new cells on two floors, as well as medical rooms. Burgess says the project is expected to begin in February and take 18 to 24 months.
Safety and security throughout county schools has been and continues to be another key issue for the Sheriff’s Department.
“As we go into 2020, I’ll continue to be involved closely with the superintendents of the schools in the county to make sure our kids are safe at schools,” he says.
Other developments during Burgess’s first year as sheriff include the integration of unmarked cars into his fleet of vehicles, training of local SWAT members by representatives of the Los Angeles Police Department and an increase in the enforcement of DUI (driving under the influence) laws, among others.
“Johnson County has such a great community and it’s unique in that everybody here is so proactive instead of reactive,” adds Burgess, who graduated from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Academy in 2016. “That makes our job in the Sheriff’s Department easier because if there’s something going on, people will call and let us know and help us solve problems.”
Burgess sees his current position as the satisfying culmination of a career in law enforcement spanning more than three decades.
“It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s been a learning experience,” he says. “The Sheriff’s Department’s been my life almost since I graduated, and I’ve enjoyed waking up every day and coming to work for the past 30 years. I really grew up here and I love my job.”
For more information on the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, including recent programs and a citizen resources page, explore johnsoncountysheriff.com.