Duane Burgess serves the community he grew up in
By Glenda Winders // Photography by Angela Jackson
From the time he was a little boy, Sheriff Duane Burgess knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: a person who helped other people. Living in Smith Valley until he was 10 years old, he admired the deputy sheriff who lived across the street, and when his family moved to Greenwood he looked up to another deputy whose home was nearby. When he once met a sheriff, he recalls thinking, “I want that job someday.”
“I’ve tried to focus my life on people who worked hard and made a difference,” he says. “The role models I’ve had in life were public service people. Helping people and seeing them smile is like an adrenaline rush.”
Burgess started early to accomplish his goal. He was a cadet at the White River Fire Department while he was still a student, and after graduating from Center Grove High School, he became a volunteer firefighter and first responder for that department. At the same time, he worked part time as a dispatcher for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department. Later he joined that department and became an EMT.
Former Johnson County Sheriff Doran Miller hired him as a corrections officer, one of only five from a pool of many civilians who wanted the job. In that position, Burgess worked at the jail so that merit deputies could be freed up for investigations or to patrol the streets. Eventually he became a merit deputy, during which time he attended the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy and became the jail commander.
A stint as chief in Southport gave him the opportunity to attend an executive training program for police chiefs, and in 2016 his predecessor, Sheriff Doug Cox, sent him to the FBI National Academy. With Cox’s term coming to an end, in 2018 he asked Burgess if he would consider running for sheriff.
“I knew a jail expansion was coming, and who better to lead such an effort than the jail commander?” Cox says. “But other issues came to the forefront early in Duane’s tenure — coronavirus, protests and disrespect of law enforcement officials — and he was still required to handle everyday issues such as traffic enforcement, criminal investigations, jail operations, budgets, courthouse security and all else that goes with the job of sheriff. The job requires the best a man or woman can give. Duane knows a lot about the community where he works, and he has a true love for his chosen profession. He works hard for those who live and work in Johnson County.”
On the go
On a typical day Burgess wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to read and answer the many emails he receives. He’s out the door by 6:45, and from then on nothing is typical. Some mornings he drives by schools, others he works traffic and stops cars. If a call comes in from his officers, he helps them.
At 8 a.m., he meets with his staff to discuss what has gone on during the night. After that he turns to the administrative duties required to keep the department going. As part of his job he supervises 58 merit deputies and 60 corrections officers at the jail, a number that will increase when the expansion program is complete. The best part, he says, is that he can go back and do any of his former jobs when he is needed.
“I love being a sheriff,” he says. “I’ve worked every division here, and I loved being a deputy and a detective. Now I can go back and do those.”
The coronavirus pandemic has added a whole new layer of complexity to what sheriffs typically have to do.
“This unique COVID time has really hit home, and all of the agencies in the county are working hard to get through it,” he says. “We created an incident command group to deal with it. We did it as a team, as a group, and I’m 100% confident that if we have some type of disaster in this county, we’re going to get through it, as a team.”
He also tries to be accessible, taking calls on his cellphone and inviting emails from the more than 100,000 residents he serves.
“That’s how we react to their needs and find a resolution to their problems,” he says. “We have a very caring sheriff’s office, and we try to engage with our folks as much as we can. We want to hear what they have to say and do the best we can for them.”
He especially enjoys working with young people, and in that capacity he has been involved with the Boy Scouts Explorer Program, the DARE program and the Leadership Youth Camp, where kids learn about what law enforcement officers do, from traffic stops to SWAT teams and bomb squads.
Burgess is also a member of the Indiana Sheriffs’ Association and sits on the legislative committee, which watches bills of interest to law enforcement and makes state legislators aware of issues that are important to them. He is involved with the Boys and Girls Club, United Way and Habitat for Humanity. He’s a Mason and a Shriner; he drives a tiny car with the Mini Mystics in local parades.
“It’s a bunch of guys who care and want to help people, and their hospitals do great work,” he says. “We’ve got little pins that are replicas of the cars, and when you give a little kid one of those pins, you put a smile on his face.”
An avid motorcyclist, Burgess takes part in various charity rides, especially the Sheriff’s Charity Ride, which this year raised $30,000 for youth programs, and the Cancer Sucks Ride. He walks with Relay for Life, and he and his wife, Dee Ann, frequently attend community functions.
“Weekends are just Sundays,” he says, and even then, he’s on call.
Burgess met Dee Ann when she was a student at Perry Meridian High School and his best friend was dating her sister. They became friends, and then he took her to the prom. “I was hooked from that point,” he says.
When he rides his motorcycle, she is often on the seat behind him, and he calls her the rock at the center of all he does.
“She had to be on board 100% when I ran for sheriff because it changed her life, too,” he says. “My entire career has really changed her life, and she has supported me beyond belief.”
The 30-year love affair has been mutual.
“He is so much,” she says. “He is my protector, my voice of reason, he is my foundation. Over the years I’ve watched him become the man he is today. His values have remained constant.”
She said one of the questions he asks people who are interviewing for a job is to define “integrity.” Then he explains that it is doing the right thing even when no one is watching. “It is something he wants everyone to remember,” she says, “and he still lives by those words every day.”
But she says there is the one downside.
“When you are married to someone who has a dangerous job, you spend a lot of sleepless nights praying,” she says. “Not just for your spouse, but for the people he works with, the public he serves and for peace. I believe that a spouse of any public servant recognizes that the missed holidays, late nights and unexpected calls are part of the relationship. You support them no matter what. It has been an amazing 30 years.”
The ties that bind
The animal-loving pair are “parents” to a boxer, a French bulldog, a Boston terrier and a “cat who thinks it’s a dog.” They are also close to other family members, including twin nieces who are both paramedics. One is married to a firefighter and the other to a police officer.
Burgess cites being hired as a merit deputy, being elected sheriff and going to the FBI National Academy, where fewer than 1% of law enforcement officers get to go, as the high points of his own career so far. A believer in developing relationships as a way to create solutions to problems, he says being at the academy opened doors.
“When two Los Angeles police officers were ambushed recently, I called to see how an LA officer I had run around with at the academy was doing,” he says. “I wanted to hear the interaction they had because it’s a different climate.”
Another day might find him texting with a friend from Iraq. More than 20 countries were represented in his 226-member class, and he also met people who were in training for FBI jobs.
“It gave me people I can call, or I can send an email to my entire class asking if they’re having certain problems or what kind of body camera they’re using. The networking is tremendous.”
But there have been lows along the way, as well. One is that although his father lived to see him elected sheriff, he died before he could see his son sworn in. Another is police behavior exhibited in the recent past.
“You come across bad cops, and I don’t agree with some of the law enforcement actions that have taken place across the United States,” he says. “It’s heart-wrenching because that’s not the society we’ve all grown up in. But I don’t consider law enforcement in Johnson County the norm for things that are occurring in other states now. We try to make our officers here in Johnson County the best that they can be. We want them to be people that other folks respect.”
Good people, high standards
To make sure that happens, he puts a lot of emphasis on vetting and hiring good people and then training them well and letting them go if at any point they don’t measure up to his high standards. He also believes in leading by example. He and a training officer recently attended a class on the history of racism, for example. He tries to keep an eye on all of his employees, but given the scope of their jobs, that isn’t always possible.
“If we receive a complaint, we get on top of it,” he says. “If that complaint warrants criminal charges, I’ll speak with the prosecutor and we’ll move forward with criminal charges. If another agency needs to look into it, I’ll be the first one to call the state police or the FBI, if it’s a civil rights violation, and turn it over to them. If we don’t have transparency, I don’t have the trust of the people.”
With all his job entails, Burgess doesn’t have much free time, but he does enjoy auto racing and counts among his friends former driver Kenny Wallace and his brother, Mike. He has also enjoyed meeting some prominent people throughout his career, among them Norman Schwarzkopf, Chuck Yeager and Dan Quayle. When President Donald Trump visited Southport High School, the Secret Service tapped Burgess to lead the Pledge of Allegiance.
“My wife made fun of me because I went around the house saying the Pledge of Allegiance,” he says, laughing. “But when you get asked to do something like that, you don’t want to screw it up.”
The couple haven’t been on vacation in the last decade except for weekends nearby where he can get back to Johnson County if he’s needed.
“My life focuses around the sheriff’s department,” he says. “I’ve got to be available in case anything happens. Johnson County is such a unique area, and the people are just great. My biggest fear is not being around if something would happen to one of them. I owe it to them. There will be time to travel when I retire.”