About Sheriff David Mahoney
If David Mahoney could have written the story for how he wanted his life to go, he would have written it just as it unfolded. Transylvania County’s sheriff knew he wanted to be in law enforcement since he was 9 years old. His family’s vacation home in South Carolina had been robbed, with his bicycle and fishing equipment stolen.
For Mahoney, the experience was unsettling, and it turned his world upside down. But the Oconee County, S.C., deputy sheriff, Gene Rogers, who handled the case, spent the day with the 9-year-old Mahoney, teaching him how to fingerprint, telling him they were doing everything they could to get his bicycle back and catch the people who did it. Riding back to Brevard, Mahoney told his dad that when he grew up he wanted to go in to law enforcement.
So, he did. Mahoney went to N.C. State to major in criminal justice, but he left after two and a half years, feeling as if he were floundering. He came home, transferred his credits to Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, got his associate’s degree and began his career in law enforcement, beginning working at the old county jail and later as a patrolman.
In 1993, he married his wife, Christina, and they started a family. Later, he worked on the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit, and then got promoted to shift supervisor on patrol. His climb toward county sheriff continued with a promotion to criminal investigation as detective, where he was working when he was elected sheriff in 2006. Life was happening right there in front of this eyes, but there was still something nagging.
“I’m a pretty competitive guy,” Mahoney said, “and I always tell my kids to finish what they started. So, the one thing in my life that kept coming back around was that I never finished my bachelor’s degree.” Mahoney said he had thought about it several times throughout the years, but with his increased responsibilities, such has his job and all of the outside events that come with his job, and his family, he said he just couldn’t conceive of it.
That is, he said, until he met Tim Powers, the coordinator of the criminal justice major at Brevard College. “He came up here, introduced himself, and we had a great conversation about his vision for the Brevard College criminal justice program, which was to make it more experiential,” Mahoney said. “He said he didn’t want to graduate students from the criminal justice program who have never ridden in a patrol car, never been in a courtroom or don’t have any hands-on experience in criminal justice, and I was fascinated by that, and I actually made the comment, ‘Where were you when I first went to college?’”
Mahoney said Powers told him it may not be all that impossible to go back. “I asked him what he meant,” Mahoney said, “and he told me, ‘Well, if you invest some money and get your transcripts, we can evaluate where you are at.’” Mahoney said one thing led to another, and that day, he said, he started ordering transcripts from N.C. State and AB Tech, and a plan of action formed.
But there were a lot of factors he needed to consider, Mahoney said, so it took a lot of prayer and conversations with his wife and staff. “I sat down with everyone at work before I ever started my first class and said, ‘Here is what I am thinking about doing, and I just need you all to take on some more things, and there are some things I can’t make it to, and I’m going to have to ask you to stand in for me,’” Mahoney said.
The next thing he knew, Mahoney was returning to college to get his bachelor’s degree. “It’s come full circle,” Mahoney said, “and I finally get to finish my bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, 29 years later.” From sitting in his office looking at his transcripts two and a half years ago to graduating on May 6, Mahoney said it’s been an interesting ride.
“I guess I’d have to say it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever been involved in for a multitude of reasons,” Mahoney said. “I was receiving education on the theoretical end of things, but I was also able to give back within the classroom and out in the field through my 25 years of experience.” Mahoney said he was able to apply real-world experience with the academic perspective, creating an interchange of ideas.
“One of the classes I’m taking this semester is victimology, and in my career I’ve dealt with a lot of victims, and I’ve been a victim, so I’ve amassed a great deal of experience in that area,” Mahoney said. Mahoney said, as sheriff, he’s dealt with people who have had “unthinkable” issues in their life.
“I’ve knelt with folks on my office floor and prayed, and tried to encourage them, and I knew that’s what law enforcement should be doing, because that’s what that deputy sheriff did with me when I was a kid,” Mahoney said. “And now I get to apply the theory of why we ought to be doing that, and understanding the effects of trauma on a person, and bring the experience and the theory together. It all makes sense.”
Mahoney said that in a “crime scene to courtroom” class, he was able to apply his experience as seven years as a detective to the classroom. “I think it is the neatest place to be to be able to say, ‘OK, let’s take the theoretical end of it and the academic end of it, and then just pour a bucket of reality on top,’” Mahoney said. “And what you get is a process that works, very well, time and field proven, and I’d like to think that maybe it helps to turn out a better graduate.”
Mahoney said it was also rewarding to see different perspectives, as well as share his, while building friendships with students. He said he recently made a film with some students examining the point of view of a police officer when pulling someone over, as well as the person being pulled over.
“One day we got out of class early, and I just thought it would be interesting to get some students’ perspective on community’s trust in law enforcement, because, you know, some kids inherently trust law enforcement and some kids don’t, and the media plays a big part in informing opinions too,” Mahoney said.
So, he started asking them what they felt like when they got pulled over. “One guy said he got scared, and another guy said he got nervous, so I told them, ‘Do you ever think that’s exactly what a police officer is feeling when he pulls someone over?’” Mahoney asked. “Because, it’s not uncommon to hear an officer’s voice shaking when they are getting ready to pull someone over. They get nervous and scared and feel the same thing on the other side of the blue lights.”
From there, he said, they began working on the film, “We Have More in Common than You Think,” which can be found on the Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office Facebook Page. Part of that which was so rewarding, Mahoney explained, was that it opened doors not just institutionally, but personally.
“And there really isn’t anything more important than that,” Mahoney said. Powers, who has worked in law enforcement in Florida for 34 years before coming to Brevard, said Mahoney has helped him as a professor create a better program.
“How cool is it to have the sheriff of the county sitting right there next to you in the classroom,” Powers said. “You can ask him anything you want, and he’s certainly worked hard for this last part of his degree, no doubt about that.” Powers said their teamwork opened doors between local law enforcement and Brevard College.
“I think there was a misconception of an ‘us versus them’ mentality, but now the students are comfortable, and the sheriff’s office is comfortable coming and going in the classroom,” Powers said. Mahoney said his biggest challenge was time management, but that he never once thought of backing out.
“I had this one time to finish, and I backed out once before, so I didn’t want to do that again,” he said. “So, I kept my eyes on the prize, but there have been a few times when I sat back and thought, ‘I’m drowning a little bit right now in time management.’” But, he said, his family and staff propped him up at every turn.
Mahoney said he hopes what he has accomplished is an encouragement to anyone who might think it’s impossible to go back to school, because, he said, it’s important to never stop learning.”And here I am, and I’m pretty stoked about this,” Mahoney said. “I can’t wait to walk across that finish line and finally complete what I started, and I just want to give a big thank you to everybody that made it possible: my wife, my kids, Lauren and Nathan, my command staff and, of course, Dr. Powers.”
“Always look for new ways to learn, not just in books, but in the people we serve and our jobs,” Mahoney said. “We constantly have to keep learning about ourselves.”
This article originally appeared in the Transylvania Times on 5/4/17 by Matt McGregor.