If you ask McCracken County Sheriff Jon Hayden why he got into law enforcement, you’ll probably be met with a long pause. He may point to an influential sheriff in Graves County where he grew up—but it’s easy to tell that the inexplicable answer is embedded somewhere deeper. “I really just always wanted to do it,” he says. “Growing up as a kid, that’s I all ever wanted to do as far as I can remember.” And if you know Sheriff Hayden, it would be hard to imagine him anywhere else. Since 2006, he’s been at the helm of the McCracken County Sheriff’s Department—and this year brings an opportunity for reflection as he ponders his retirement.
“I started my law enforcement career in Princeton in the late 80s,” says Sheriff Hayden. “I was there three or four years, then I got hired at the Paducah Police Department. I worked a very short stint there. I was really trying to get on at the McCracken County Sheriff’s Department. Part of the reason I wanted to work here so bad is because I had a lot of respect for Sheriff Howard Walker. He was very well known in our region and had done a lot to improve the professionalism of the office. I thought it would be great to work for him.”
Sheriff Hayden explains that sheriff’s departments are usually funded at much lower levels than municipal police departments, making recruitment, staffing, and equipping a constant challenge. Sheriff Walker raised the bar in McCracken County in spite of the challenges he faced. Jon admired what was taking place and wanted to be a part of it, even though a sheriff’s department is responsible for a dizzying array of managerial duties in addition to policing the community.
“We provide security the courthouse and courtrooms,” explains Sheriff Hayden. “We collect property taxes, and we distribute it as well. Funding for things like our schools and fire departments depend on that. We’re responsible for all court process such as subpoenas and civil process. If we don’t do that in a timely manner, things like the criminal justice system can come to a screeching halt. We transport prisoners—people picked up in other jurisdictions who have warrants out of McCracken. We manage the carry and concealed deadly weapons process. We do all car inspections before vehicles can be licensed in the state. Think of all the car dealers in Paducah. With all the thousands of cars sold, we send a deputy out to all the car lots to visually inspect each vehicle. So over and above our law enforcement duties, we have a lot of other things we have to do.”
Then, there’s the obvious side of law enforcement. “We have double the population in the county as compared to the city and a larger area to cover. We used to have numerous State Troopers assigned to McCracken, and today there are none assigned to come here and take calls and spend their shift here. With all of that, budget time is always an issue every year when it comes to looking at what we do and what we need to accomplish with the limited number of people we have. And the people’s safety is the priority for us. We’ve been very fortunate that the fiscal courts I’ve served under have been very pro-public safety. I was elected to this office to look out for the safety and security of our citizens. That’s been my priority.”
In spite of all the challenges faced by a local sheriff’s office, Jon’s determination to tackle issues head-on for the sake of McCracken County has been evident throughout his tenure. His burden of responsibility and love for the community are evident. He expresses genuine concern toward everyone he meets with a soft, gentle demeanor that belies the caricature of a law enforcement officer. That’s why when he announced his retirement to be effective at the end of 2018, the community was stunned and disappointed. Sheriff Hayden simply asked for some understanding and trust that he was making the best decision possible for the community, something he’s tried to do throughout his career.
“I have, in this profession, seen others who held their positions for long periods of time, to the point where it was obvious they needed to step down,” he says. “I’ve always believed that whenever I knew it was my time to step down that I would have the fortitude to do so. It’s not that I’m burned out to the point that I’m ineffective, but I don’t want to get to that point. And when new people come in, they bring new ideas and a new energy. It’s good for organizations sometimes to have a change in leadership. I feel very strongly that this is the right time for that. A lot of people questioned my decision. I still enjoy what I do, but I do feel like it’s time. And it has caused me to some degree neglect my family. You are on call, 24/7, around the clock. Anything that happens, I am personally and civilly responsible for. My notifications are nonstop. I have missed birthdays, weddings, funerals—and my family has been very understanding. But I don’t know how much time I have left on this earth, and I want to use what little time I may have to make things right with my family.”
And even though retirement is coming, he knows he has a year of hard work left. “My goal is to leave this agency in a better position than I found it. I worked hard at continuing to improve the professionalism of this office, and whoever the next sheriff is has a good foundation to build on.” Sheriff Hayden has officially endorsed Matt Carter in his bid for the office. Matt has been with the department since 2000. “The stars have aligned perfectly for Matt and me. I feel like this is a good time for me to exit, and here we have someone who is ready to take it and run with it. We share a lot of the same philosophies. I would sleep well at night knowing that he’s going to build on what we started.”
Jon will leave the McCracken County Sheriff’s department this December a changed man. Most of the vivid memories were borne from tragedy. He was a responding and investigative detective for the Heath High School shooting in 1997. “I’ll never forget that morning as long as I live,” he says. There have also been numerous fatalities where Sheriff Hayden made or assisted with family notifications. “Those always stick with you. The Casondra Evrard case was really horrific. I found her body myself. The Keith Griffith murder case probably aged me a few years. There’s no doubt these things changed me. The profession matured me fast. It changed me as a person and shaped me in a manner that made me appreciate the opportunities I’ve had and know how lucky I’ve been. I’ve seen tragedy strike so many people and their families. I feel extremely fortunate. I’ve had a career and position where I can affect people’s lives. I hope I’ve done that in a positive way.”