Are you an Andy Taylor or a Barney Fife?
On the classic “Andy Griffith Show,” Barney was the excitable deputy, the barking hunting dog always on the lookout for the slightest infraction of the law, jumping up and down in hysterics, quoting the law books left and right and insisting that Andy lock everyone up.
Sheriff Andy was the calm, cool, levelheaded voice of reason, understanding that it was often better to use compassion over legalism.
In the just-concluded investigation of the chief of the Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation – part of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office – chose to be more like Andy.
The BCI investigator didn’t necessarily conclude that the letter of the law hadn’t been violated to some degree, strictly speaking. Instead, he concluded, “There appears to be insufficient evidence to establish any element of personal gain in any activity that would justify, in my opinion, any further prosecutorial action concerning allegations of forgery or the misappropriation of funds.” Good for him.
When I worked at the Marion Star in the early 1990s, I had a great coworker whose husband happened to be the county sheriff. One time I made a comment comparing the sheriff’s office to its fictional counterpart in Mayberry. To her, this was an insult. She thought Mayberry was a town full of hicks and rubes and the sheriff’s office was the butt of all jokes.
I couldn’t disagree more. To me, Mayberry is the kind of town that all small communities should strive to emulate. It represents kindness and compassion, a place where common sense and benevolence take precedent over bitterness and vindictiveness.
Remember Barney arresting little old ladies for high crimes like jaywalking? Or hauling someone into the jailhouse for making an illegal U-turn? Barney lived and died by the code book, like others we know who constantly trot out state code, chapter and verse. He would bring his prisoners in front of Andy, who would be quietly sitting at his desk doing paperwork.
“Andy!” Barney would say, bursting at the seams. “I’ve got him dead to rights for a clear violation of a 165.92! We need to lock him up!”
Andy would try to conceal his grin and take it all seriously, and say, “Well Barn, I don’t know that we need to lock him up.” Then he would turn his attention to the alleged violator, ask a couple of questions, issue a stern warning and send him on his way. Meanwhile, Barney would be fuming that Andy just wouldn’t enforce the law.
Sheriff Taylor was actually accused of malfeasance more than once during the show’s run, including by Barney in one episode when he ran against Andy for sheriff. They had a debate, and Barney said he had identified 76 instances of malfeasance by the sheriff. He later backed down, not because he was technically wrong, but because he realized Andy had never done anything with malicious intent.
But the most serious case was when a state investigator came to Mayberry and held a hearing on allegations of malfeasance by the sheriff. It turned out the state’s chief witness was, to his surprise, Barney, who had innocently made some comments in a newspaper article detailing the sheriff’s “lax” performance of his duties. A tried and true law enforcement tactic is to turn coworkers or friends against each other, and that’s what the investigator tried to do in this case.
The investigator/prosecutor grilled Barney on the stand, asking about the deputy’s accusations against the sheriff for not enforcing the law, for allowing a prisoner (Otis) to let himself in and out of jail, and for using the squad car for personal business (theft in office or misuse of public property, I guess), among other infractions.
Realizing the trap he had inadvertently stepped into, Barney reluctantly agreed that it was all true. But he said Mayberry was the safest and friendliest place on earth, and the sheriff was the best sheriff.
“The only ruckus you’d have in this town,” said Barney, “is if you tried to remove him from office. Then you’d have a riot.”
Turning somber, Barney said that while Andy may not have always enforced the letter of the law, the reason was because of “something he’s been trying to teach me ever since I started working for him. When you’re a lawman and you’re dealing with people, you go a whole lot better if you go not so much by the book, but by the heart. I guess that’s something that’s kinda hard for some of you to understand.”
Andy would get tougher when the crime was serious, like a bank robber on the prowl. He would always outsmart the state police who came in to take over the case, using his country wits and his understanding of human nature to outdo the fancy police methods employed by the professionals from Raleigh.
But when it came to the local residents of Mayberry and the surrounding countryside, he let his conscience be his guide and often left the law books on the shelves.
Hillsboro is Mayberry, and so is Greenfield, Lynchburg, Leesburg and Mowrystown, or at least they should be. That’s a compliment, not an insult. We’re not New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles or even Cincinnati or Dayton or Columbus. We should be happy about that.
In places like Hillsboro, just as in Mayberry, there’s still room for the heart and common sense to matter more than the book, and to know when some things are better dealt with through compassion or a stern warning, instead of a judicial sledgehammer.
But I guess that’s something that’s kinda hard for some people to understand, and it depends on whether you’re an Andy or a Barney. To his credit, even Barney came to understand it, most of the time.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.