Fulton County Sheriff Al Roork reflects on four decades in LE; set for early retirement
After 42 years in law enforcement, Fulton County Sheriff Al Roork has made the decision to officially retire. Announced at a recent Fulton County Quorum Court meeting, the sheriff sites doctor’s orders for less stress and seeing the department at the top of its game as the main reasons for retirement.
“The problem that I have is I have not been able to separate my personal life from my public life. I have made myself very available to the public, way too available. Unfortunately, my cardiologist says it is time for me to go,” said Sheriff Roork. As with many employers these days, keeping employees has proven difficult. “It is difficult to hire and attain qualified and intelligent people, and it requires quite a bit of training to do this job. Not just law enforcement, but jail staff as well.”
The liabilities of the sheriff’s department is also something to consider when employed. “The liabilities can keep you up at night because I was sued seven times in 2019 in federal court over this jail. I have no idea how many times I have been sued in federal court, as far as I know I’ve never lost one. The stress is still there. Unfortunately when you are sheriff, there is stuff that comes up where you do have vulnerability to a lawsuit.”
The lawsuits aren’t the most memorable moments for Sheriff Roork. Serving his community and the hundreds of friendships he developed are what he will remember about his law enforcement career, which began with the City of Salem.
“I worked for 33 years for the City of Salem. I started Aug. 17, 1979 as a patrolman for the City of Salem. In eight or so years after I started for them, I was promoted to Chief of Police and served in that capacity for I guess 25 years, a long time. When I retired, I went over the next day as chief deputy at the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department under Sheriff Buck Foley,” recalled Roork.
After five years and four months as chief deputy, he ran uncontested for sheriff in 2016. Jan. 1, 2022 will make five years as sheriff, “and that is when I am going to hang it up.” In August, Sheriff Roork had officially been in law enforcement for 42 years. “That is all I have ever known. I think I’ve done what God intended for me to do and it’s been a real blessing to me. Had I chosen anything else as a vocation, I wouldn’t have got to meet all the people I have met, and become friends with hundreds of people as a result of what I’ve done. It was never just a job, it was an obligation to my community and it was never just about getting out here and doing law enforcement and arresting people. It was about helping people. I’ve always taken it very serious.”
One of his greatest accomplishments during his career was seeing the law enforcement sales tax implemented by the voters of Fulton County. “I never knew whether I could win an election because no one ran [against] me either time. But I figured out I would’ve done ok because I got a very unpopular sales tax voted in by over 75 percent of the people. I got out and worked on that thing, and was honest with the people about it and I appreciate their support in that. It has made things so much better. Not just for law enforcement here, but for the county also.”
The sales tax helped bring the sheriff’s department to the shape it is in now, which is the best Sheriff Roork has ever seen it. “That will be my biggest accomplishment during my law enforcement career. It took a unique personality like mine to get that done. I have a strong personality and I don’t like to lose. I choose my battles carefully and I typically win what I start out to do because I am so head strong about things. I have one rule that when I a hire a deputy or anything, I tell them, ‘you always do the right thing’ and that is my philosophy. I believe you can take the truth anywhere in the world like Condoleezza Rice always said when she was Secretary of State and that always stuck with me because I admire her greatly. She was an honest person and worked hard for our country. I try to work hard for our community also. I have always been a 24 hours/seven days a week sheriff, and police of chief too, I worked all the time. That is real hard on your private life and relationships. I’ve missed out on a lot of things with my family.”
The sales tax also helped bring in qualified individuals to work in Fulton County. Investigator Dale Weaver and Chief Deputy Joe Boshears have been vital additions to Roork’s team. “I am in a position here where I can [retire] without causing any kind of hardship on the county. I can safely say that we have the best sheriff’s department right now, that we’ve ever had; the most professional sheriff’s department we’ve ever had.”
When talking about Boshears, Sheriff Roork said the chief deputy is highly respected by all agencies. “I’ve never seen anyone who has as many contacts as he does with federal agencies. I tell ya, when you can just pick up the phone and call Homeland Security and get something done on spur of the second like he’s done, that’s very valuable. He is respected by everyone who’s worked with him because he is so intelligent and because he knows this job very well. So he is going to be the one I’ve asked them to appoint for that one year until they get them a new sheriff elected.”
Over the years Roork has had some close encounters, but none like the one which occurred on Jan. 6, 1995. “I got hurt pretty bad in a jailbreak. I sustained several broken bones, some pretty bad lacerations, had toilet bowl cleaner acid thrown in my eyes by inmates,” recalled Roork. The two inmates were unable to escape that day, although one almost got past Roork in the stairs. “I lunged at him and grabbed his ankles and drug him back down. I was the only one there at the time. When helped arrived finally, and it was a good thing because I had gone just about as far as I could go and I had so much blood in my face I couldn’t seen. It was a very traumatic time. I was able to prevent that escape from the old jail, but it took me a while to recover from all the injuries I had and broken bones.”
When it comes to regrets, the sheriff has one big one. “The thing I regret the most was in 2007 I was contacted by the FBI and they asked me to attend their academy in Quantico. That is a huge honor because they invite you, you don’t just say hey I want to go. That was something I would have loved to have done, but I had just had back surgery, would have been gone for three months and I was chief of police at the time and it was just me and two other guys; I didn’t see any other way to do it. I think Mayor Clayton would’ve allowed me to do it, it just wasn’t a good time for me to go. I would’ve loved to have went.”
Though Roork wouldn’t trade his time in law enforcement for any other career, it has had its fair share of negatives as well. “I have learned to control things and push the things I’ve seen, smelled and been around, to the side. There have been many times where I had to take off my clothes on the back deck because of the smells on them. I have some post traumatic stress disorder that I am suffering from also, but I am in reasonably good health still,” he said. Although another regret is all the physical pressure his body was under all those years.
“I hate to be a quitter, but at this point, I can’t wrap my mind around another year of this. I am burnt out, literally burnt out. The phone calls never end and it is never Ed McMahon. They are all hours of the night and I think I’ve reached a juncture in my life where it is time for me to make a change,” stated Sheriff Roork.
The next election for Fulton County Sheriff will be held in 2022, until then, Sheriff Roork has recommended Fulton County Quorum Court appoints Boshears, who would be sheriff until Jan. 1, 2023. Jake Smith will be promoted from lieutenant to chief deputy, “so they will have two very experienced, very good honest guys who will be running the department. Me and Dale are going to go at the same time and JoAnn Cunningham has been with us as jail administrator for 33 years and she’s going to retire too. That is going to knock a pretty big hole in things.”
Though it is bittersweet to leave, even after “fixing” the department into the “best it’s ever been”, Roork is very proud as prosecutors have told the sheriff his deputies’ cases are “jury ready” and they are comfortable taking on any of their cases.
“It is a good time for me to just go ahead and ride off into the sunset. I am leaving it in very good hands at this point. Everyone who works here, on the law enforcement or jail side, says it is the best it’s ever been,” said Roork. He ended the interview with a message to the Fulton County residents. “I greatly appreciate all the support the community has given me and it has been an honor to serve them the last 42 years.”