In many ways, Jeff Wigington is the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office embodied. The life-long Rockdale resident has worked his entire 35 year law enforcement career at the RCSO, beginning while he was still in high school, and had served as the county’s top law enforcer for the past 16 years as Sheriff.
As a young boy, there was little question of the direction he was headed. “I always wanted to be a police or law enforcement,” said Wigington. He grew up sporting red lights on his go-cart – back then law enforcement had red lights – and absorbed TV shows like “Adam-12.”
He began riding with deputies in their patrol cars in high school. Sheriff J.T. Wallace took notice of the earnest young man and asked Wigington when he was 17 years old if he wanted to work for the Rockdale jail. Wigington began working in his last semester of high school during the evening and went to classes during the day. “Looking back, I can’t imagine hiring a 17-year-old,” said Wigington. “I guess he thought I was a mature person for my age.”
He worked under three Sheriffs – J.T. Wallace, Vic Davis, Guy Norman. “I think they’ve all been very nice, honorable upstanding men. I’ve learned things from each one and tried to remember the good things from each and tried not to do some of the things that I didn’t like.”
After 19 years as a deputy, Wigington ran for Sheriff in 1995 against Guy Norman and won.
When he first stepped into the role of Sheriff, “You don’t know what you’re getting into and what to expect,” he said. “A lot of it is learned by experience.”
One of those experiences included the Heritage High School shooting in 1999 during his first term.
Another tragedy that occurred while he was in office – one he had hoped he would never have to face – was the day Investigator Brian Mahaffey was shot and killed in the line of duty in 2010. Before that, an RCSO deputy had not died in the line of duty for more than 80 years.
An experience Wigington notes as one of the highlights of his career was participating in several international law enforcement exchanges that allowed him to travel to Israeil in 2006, England and Scotland Yard in 2007, and Turkey in 2010.
He also learned from national travels and conferences, including seeing how Sheriff Joe Arpaio did things in Arizona. After meeting Arpaio in 1998 and touring the tent cities, Wigington began the black-and-white striped inmate work crews that help maintain Rockdale County.
He also made improving the image of Rockdale County’s law enforcement a focus. To this day it irks him when parents see a deputy and warn their young children to shape up or the deputy would arrest them.
“I tried to always make the department a professional department, stay in contact with the public.” Community policing was the big trend when he took office, and the Lakeview Precinct was opened and School Resource Officers were put into middle schools soon after he started a sheriff. Keeping the jail clean became a priority as well as slowly changing out the old brown patrol cars.
Wigington also oversaw significant growth of the department from about 150 personnel to about 300 personnel and SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) funded expansion of the jail from a capacity of about 172 to 700, plus the addition of a women's jail annex, administration building, and significant changes in technology.
Other achievements include the RCSO's certification under the state Law Enforcement Certification Program since 2002.
The parts of the job he doesn’t enjoy include administrative discipline. But, he said, “in the end you have to do what you think is best for the department. They may not like you for it, but it is what it is.”
“Some of the things you never think to tell them you shouldn’t do because it’s just accepted you shouldn’t do that.”
Now, he tells young deputies, “What you do off duty is going to reflect on you on duty. Law enforcement is held to a higher standard… Know that people are going to look at you differently.”
Wigington had hoped to serve a fifth term but was defeated by a razor-thin margin by Democratic challenger and RCSO deputy Eric Levett. Wigington said he is reviewing his options after he leaves office in January but that he and his wife Beth, who attend Union United Methodist, are very much still staying in the community. They have three sons, one who is a Marine, one who is a Georgia State Patrol Trooper, and one who hopes to become a fireman, and are enjoying spending time with their first granddaughter.