End of an era: Carothers winding up 32-year career with sheriff’s department

With just a few days left before his tenure ends as the county’s top law enforcement official, Sheriff Mike Carothers doesn’t spend much time thinking about what lies ahead.

It’s too emotional to think about next week when he will walk out of the doors of the department for the last time as sheriff — and as an officer.

It’s difficult to think about after a career that has spanned 32 years in law enforcement dedicated to one county, but he will retire when he leaves office.

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Every single year has been spent at the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department.

“It’s going to be hard,” Carothers said from his office, his lip quivering with emotion. “I really don’t like thinking about it.”

The department’s annual Christmas party was difficult, too, as he thought about how his time as sheriff and officer was winding down.

“That was a tough moment for me,” the 65-year-old said.

But everything eventually comes to an end, and Carothers looks back on his time at the department with pride. He feels he has made a positive difference.

“I loved serving not only as sheriff but as an officer,” he said.

Seymour Republican Rick Meyer — elected Nov. 6 — will take over as sheriff on Tuesday.

Carothers started a reserve officer in January 1987, and he was then hired as a dispatcher by the summer of the same year.

He worked a few more months as a dispatcher before a position for a jail officer opened.

Carothers served in that capacity for a year before he was hired as a full-time officer.

His first day on the road was Jan. 1, 1989.

When he began his career, the department had eight officers and did everything from road patrol to serving court papers.

“There isn’t a job down here I haven’t done,” he said.

That helped him in many ways, Carothers said, exposing him to nearly every scenario and job that’s expected of law enforcement.

Carothers joked he helped with maintenance of the building.

“I’ve even helped replace toilets and other plumbing,” he said. “Even today, it’s nothing to find me in the kitchen working on a dishwasher.”

Carothers said he wasn’t sure he wanted a career in law enforcement, but he did have an interest in being a conservation officer when he was a kid. That was powered by his interest in the outdoors.

Carothers was ultimately drawn to the idea of helping people.

“That was always appealing,” he said.

He served at the Redding Township Volunteer Fire Department prior to being hired at the sheriff’s department.

As a young officer, Carothers said many people would always ask when he would run for sheriff. It’s a question that gets asked to anyone who joins the department, he said.

“I always said never,” he said with a laugh.

But after nearly 20 years with the department, Carothers felt he had a little more to offer the county, filing for office in the 2006 election.

In that election to replace Sheriff Jerry Hounshel, Carothers was defeated by Democrat Marc Lahrman by just 104 votes. He won a rematch with Lahrman four years later.

“It felt good to win, and the bad thing about elections is there has to be winner and there has to be a loser,” he said. “It’s not a good feeling, and one I experienced, but not like Marc did, being the incumbent.”

Carothers said he is proud of the improvements he feels he has made since taking office in 2011.

Some of them were simple improvements like scheduling, while others were advanced involving technology and training. He is proud to send officers to water rescue and diving training. That is important training to obtain given the county’s landscape includes so much water, he said.

Carothers is most proud of converting the juvenile center into another pod for the jail — a move that increased capacity — in a financially sound way. While it was the county commissioners’ decision to close the center, Carothers said he is proud he was able to implement the changes in a way that helped limit the cost to taxpayers.

“We only used probably $50,000 or so of taxpayers’ money, and the rest I used the commissary fund,” he said.

When Carothers was elected, the jail’s capacity was 162. It is now 248, and he hopes the state will certify an additional 20 beds soon.

“I’m most proud to leave that to the next sheriff,” he said. “I took office and we were overcrowded, and now, we are starting to see us come under that capacity.”

The fatal wrecks were difficult — especially when they involved young people — and so was notifying families of those deaths. Carothers said he has had to make those visits many times throughout his career but felt he approached that scenario with empathy.

Carothers himself has experienced the loss of his nephew, giving him a level of understanding.

He said many know something is wrong and bad when law enforcement knocks on the door, but the officer has to be strong when they deliver the news. Carothers said after he would inform a family, he would take the time to console them and try to provide them with help.

“It’s not very easy,” he said. “But you have to be strong for them.”

The worst wreck he has experienced came late in his career when four teens were killed in a wreck Aug. 25 in Cortland, Carothers said.

“That’s the worst one we’ve had to deal with,” he said. “The number and the ages of the kids made it very difficult.”

Dealing with the death of any young person is always hard on law enforcement and the first responders they work alongside, Carothers said.

“Those are the ones that haunt you,” he said.

It’s why Carothers has been supportive of debriefings at Schneck Medical Center following such incidents. It gives officers and first responders an opportunity to discuss incidents with each other while professionals are present.

Often, those difficult moments take their toll, and officers should try to manage that by finding an outlet, he said.

Maybe it’s talking to someone, seeking help or doing something that will provide some distraction.

“One thing that helps me more than anything is that I farm,” he said. “Whether you’re out in a combine, working with a corn planter or in a greenhouse, just spend time by yourself and do something that is so simple that it clears your mind.”

There’s a lot the next sheriff will be faced with, Carothers said.

There will be challenges along the way, but each sheriff needs to be guided and motivated by a simple principle, he said.

“Do what you think is right,” he said. “Sometimes, it may take you a little longer to make a decision, and you should take that time, but always ultimately do what you think is right.”

He said being considerate and having common sense also goes a long way.

“You can have a Ph.D. in anything, but common sense always wins out,” Carothers said. “You need to be considerate of all those you come in contact with, too.”

After a long overdue vacation with his wife, Brenda, Carothers plans to stay busy.

“I farm, so I will stay busy doing that,” he said. “I’ll be around.”

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Mike Carothers, Jackson County sheriff Jan. 1, 2011, to Dec. 31, 2018.