HANCOCK COUNTY — When deputies join the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, they’re given a uniform with shiny silver buttons. But as years pass and deputies earn promotions, they get a new uniform. One with golden buttons to signify their higher rank.
Tom Harrison has worked for the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department for more than four decades, and he earned those golden buttons years ago.
But every day, on the key ring in his pocket, he carries a silver button. It’s a reminder, he said, that no matter the rank, the pay or the title, he’s just like everyone else.
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Harrison will retire at the end of the month, concluding 43 years of service to the community he’s always called home.
In that time, he’s held many gold-button positions within the department, including road patrol captain and chief deputy. He even ran, unsuccessfully, to be the Republican nominee for sheriff in the 1980s.
But the position he’s perhaps most well-known for is the one he currently holds as lead evidence technician. He is in charge of a team of six other officers who comb crime scenes to collect anything from fingerprints and DNA to bullet casings and whatever else might help detectives catch a criminal.
In many ways, he’s helped build that facet of the department.
When he was first hired at the sheriff’s department in 1975 by then-Sheriff Malcolm Grass, deputies didn’t divide duties as they do know, Harrison said.
Back then, the sheriff’s department was comprised of about 10 deputies who worked out of what is now the local prosecutor’s office. The department also didn’t have specialized divisions — like investigations or road patrol — as it does now. If an officer patrolling the road received a call for help that needed further investigating, it was his case from start to finish, Harrison said. That one deputy would interview witnesses, hunt down leads, collect evidence and make any arrests on his own.
That changed about 30 years ago, after the department and the community both grew a bit, and evidence technicians were introduced. At first, Harrison wasn’t one of them, but after a few officers became squeamish over the crime scenes they’d encountered, he volunteered to take over. He’s been at the helm for nearly 26 years.
He’s investigated come gruesome scenes and puzzling crimes in that time, but he treats each one with the utmost care. He teaches those he supervises to do the same. The work an evidence tech does plays a key role in getting justice for a victim, and that’s an important responsibility, he said.
Harrison’s role within the department means he’s regularly called upon to testify in court, said Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton. It’s not always the most exciting part of the trial, but it’s essential, and Harrison always seems to make even the most complicated bits of evidence easy for a jury to understand.
That helps the prosecutor’s office immensely in its mission to ensure criminals are held accountable for their actions, Eaton said.
Harrison said he first became interested in that art of evidence collecting when he was fresh out of high school. He’d graduated from Greenfield-Central in 1974 and took a job working for the Indiana State Police as a records clerk. Law enforcement was always in his blood; his father, uncle and brother were all police officers.
Harrison would pull an overnight shift, filing away important records, and then meet up in the morning with his cousin, who worked a morning shift in the state police crime lab. They’d have breakfast together, and then sometimes his cousin would take him for a tour of the lab and tell him about the big cases they were working on.
Since then, he’s learned crime scenes can be difficult and that there’s an inherent pressure on the technician to make sure he or she has found everything the investigators need. He’s even gone back to scenes just to double or triple check.
Harrison has agreed to come out of retirement, if necessary, to help on big cases that might come up in the near future, sheriff-elect Brad Burkhart said. He’s also agreed to continue doing some work with the department’s critical incident team, helping officers who might be in distress.
The critical incident team is a peer-counseling service that helps officers grieve or deal with stressors following difficult situations, both personal and professional. After big cases or after a fellow officer dies, members of the team make themselves available to talk through issues and help an officer find more help if they need it.
In his retirement, Harrison plans to spend more time with his family: his wife, Cheryl, his two daughters and two grandsons. He plans to hunt and fish and dive back into craftsmanship projects he enjoys. But he’s happy to help the department and its officers out, if he’s ever needed.
“I’m not going to turn my back on them,” he said.