The new Lucas County sheriff isn’t afraid to arrest and book bad people. He believes in aggressively pursuing criminals — both teens and adults. He believes some people should never be released.
But John Tharp does not believe that strategy alone will curb crime.
Crime-fighting starts with crime prevention. It involves working with children who are struggling with learning or behavioral disabilities, he said. These young people feel ostracized. They can’t keep up in school; they feel defeated. So they start acting out in little ways, then big ways and finally in ways that affect everyone in society.
Tharp is as much an enforcer as he is an educator. In addition to an associate degree in law enforcement technology, he has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from the University of Toledo. He specialized in behavioral and learning disabilities.
“Education is a good fit for law enforcement. All of my friends were doing administrative degrees wanting to be police chiefs. I had no intention of being a police chief — or sheriff,” he said.
“I liked working with at-risk kids, gang members, hoodlums, thugs and young people who were going down the wrong path. I thought there has to be a better way for these kids. I kept thinking if I had more information about them, I could deal with them a little easier. I thought the wave of the future would be law enforcement interfacing more with youth, which turned out to be true.”
Tharp built his 40-year career on that philosophy and is now bringing those ideals, along with others, into his newly elected position as Lucas County sheriff. He replaces longtime Sheriff James Telb, who retired.
“The sheriff really has to be open to suggestions,” Tharp said Jan. 9, his third day on the job. “As sheriff, I don’t have all the answers.”
The 64-year-old intends to run an open administration. He wants to be visible so his 500-plus employees are comfortable giving him recommendations.
“Our administration needs to be coming in on nights to meet with correction officers and deputies,” he said. “We need to be out at the road patrols saying hello. We need to encourage our staff to step up and be men and women for others. It is more than just making an arrest; we have to look at the big picture.”
Not playing cops and robbers
Tharp said he wasn’t thinking about the big picture, let alone law enforcement, when he was growing up in West Virginia. He actually wanted to be a farmer.
“My dad died when I was super young, so young I didn’t even know him, and there were farmers who I liked and idolized,” Tharp said.
His dreams shifted when his mother, a registered nurse, moved the family to Toledo. They lived next to Libbey High School, where Tharp played football and wrestled.
It was at Libbey that he started to think about law enforcement. He had friends who had older brothers in the career; however, his mother couldn’t afford college raising four children, and the GI Bill ended up paying for his three degrees.
“Everything I did in the military was so disciplined and everything in Vietnam was so violent,” he said. “As a combat medic, you are with the troops and taking fire at the same time they are taking fire. It is being there for them and not leaving.”
Tharp plans to apply some of those wartime lessons to being sheriff.
“The sheriff needs to be engaged, the sheriff needs to be present and stepping forward and making recommendations. And if something is going the wrong way, the sheriff must, must straighten it back up.”
When he returned from Vietnam, his friends said, “You need to find Jim Telb because he is a cop and drug agent.”
Tharp took Telb’s law enforcement technology program at UT, while working nights at a factory. He started at the Toledo Police Department (TPD) in 1972 with many of his years spent on the drug unit and homicide squad.
Oregon Police Chief Mike Navarre worked with Tharp back then. Navarre became TPD chief in 1998, one year after Tharp left to work at the sheriff’s office.
“John was always an excellent investigator. He was well-liked by his colleagues because he was helpful,” Navarre said. “He has a lot of people skills. I think that is what is going to help him succeed as the sheriff.”
Tharp is respected for his experience and collaborative nature as well.
“I have nothing but great things to say about John and we will be working on collaborative things in the future as he takes the office of sheriff,” said Toledo Police Chief Derrick Diggs.
One of Tharp’s greatest partnerships was with the local schools back in the mid ’80s and early ’90s. For nine months, he served as a consultant to Toledo Public Schools. A grant paid for him to make recommendations on how to safeguard the school from drugs and gang activities.
When the grant ended, the schools wanted him to continue. It was at this time that TPD came up with the idea of school resource officers. Tharp had to convince some school administrators that it was a good idea. Back then, cops in schools were taboo.
“If I had my choice, I would have an officer in every school and it wouldn’t have to be paid for by the school system,” Tharp said. “It is something we should be doing. Law enforcement agents need to be around schools in the morning and around 3 p.m. That is when crimes are happening that involve young kids.”
In 1997, Tharp had finished his master’s and had 25 years in at TPD when Telb asked about his retirement plans. Tharp thought he might teach, “unless you have something for me,” he joked.
Telb told him there would be an opening in 60 days.
Tharp became a major in the sheriff’s office, and continued mentoring youth, even working with young people who were skipping school, per principals’ requests.
“I would rouse them out of bed and take them to school. Their guardians had no problems with me coming into the house.”
The deputies also adopted Ella P. Stewart Academy.
“We will read to the younger ones; we will do anything that we need to do to make life better for them,” Tharp said. “If they are going to the library and don’t have enough money for busing, we will escort them to the library.”
Teresa Quinn, principal at Stewart Academy, appreciates Tharp’s support, in particular providing deputies at dismissal. Plus, the students love the new sheriff.
“We were just having a conversation about having a small assembly with him and the children,” Quinn said.
Phyllis “Sam” Tharp said her husband is passionate and dedicated. She remembers when he coached underprivileged students. The only requirement was that the truant students go to school.
The whole family — sons John and Andrew and daughter Kati — supported his bid for sheriff, she said. And the family is growing as Tharp is about to become a first-time grandfather in the same month he became sheriff.
“It just seemed like a natural flow,” Tharp said. “It wasn’t anything that I had planned. I didn’t come here to be a sheriff.
“I came here to work within the community. I came here to do whatever I could do to help others. I came here to help Sheriff Telb.”
That’s not to say he minded running unopposed.
“Probably no one else wanted the job,” he said with a chuckle.
But he wanted it, and he is tackling one of his biggest challenges already — the budget.
“One thing we started already, just a couple of days ago, was job sharing,” Tharp said. We have to reallocate our manpower to put [employees] where we need them at the busy times. If they are slow at a particular time, they need to be moved and need to be placed in a different location.”
Pat Mangold, president of UAW Local 3056, which represents employees of the sheriff’s department, said employees are excited about the new sheriff. They are looking forward to the implementation of an efficiency analysis. The study addresses different ways to manage inmates’ behavior and much-needed maintenance issues at the aging Lucas County jails.
“We think there are going to be some positive changes,” Mangold said.
Another of those changes could be a renewed battle on gang activity, a growing problem in the county. Fortunately, Tharp has experience from serving on a TPD gang task force.
“We would bust up the gangs, arrest them, book them and let them know we were there. We were taking guns off the street. We were taking murderers off the street,” he said.
But due to budget constraints, the task force folded, and the
“We have to have the manpower to address it,” Tharp said. “I am still in the old-school way of thinking, we have to get out there with the gang members, interface with the gang members and work with the ones who we can get out of gangs.”
Yet for those gang members who continue to commit crimes, the tough guy Tharp re-emerges. Some people deserve to be put away, he said.
“We have to go after them, we have to arrest them, we have to book them. We can’t let them slide. We have to be aggressive.”
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