Grayson County Sheriff Norman Chaffins exists between duty and quandary.

Words and photos by: Noah Riffe

As he works a problem with a constituent’s unpaid power bill, Norman speaks on the phone with the electric company. Through a program called Behind the Badge, he was able to get the power restored.

When Norman Chaffins walks through the halls of the H.W. Wilkey Elementary School — his alma mater —  he is greeted with high-fives and hugs.

Chaffins, now the Grayson County sheriff, visits twice a week to teach an anti-addiction and drug awareness program to fifth-graders, hoping to make a positive impact on young people by gaining their trust so if someday they need help, they will reach out.

“We have more resources available today than we did 20 years ago for people who were addicted to different drugs,” he says. “We now have more avenues to get them help.”

Students at H. W. Wilkey Elementary School show off their handmade bookmarks to Norman, who has been teaching an anti-drug class in local schools for 27 years. “There’s been times where I’ve come up on wrecks, and I had them in fifth grade,” he says. “I don’t remember the name, but I know their face and it breaks my heart more than anything.”

That kind of intervention hits close to home. Chaffins’ father struggled with addiction, often having run-ins with police and confrontations with his mother.

After graduating college, Chaffins moved back home to Grayson County, Kentucky to begin a career in law enforcement. He went straight to see his father.

“I said, ‘Dad, we got to talk,’” Chaffins recounts. “And he said, ‘I know what you’re gonna tell me.’ He stuck his finger in my face and said: ‘Norman, you do your job.’”

Axel Plush, 7, gets a surprise visit from his Grandpa Norman at H. W. Wilkey Elementary School.

Norman speaks with Rick and Becky Mintora at Farmers Feed Mill.

“My dad never took another drink after that day,” he says. “Because he knew that I would have done my job.”

As sheriff, his approach to policing is community-based. A way of wrestling with the sharp responsibility that comes with being the ultimate enforcer of the law.

One morning, Chaffins walks into his office, and the phone rings. He learns that a 60-year-old woman is without electricity at home, and a local nonprofit doesn’t have the funds to help pay her bill.

Chaffins finds money through a program named “Behind the Badge,” which restores her power.

Norman speaks with Kentucky State Troopers Joey Beasley, left, and Robert Hartley after the end of an event to promote the use of seatbelts. Joey and Norman worked together when he was a state trooper, and Joey’s wife now works in the sheriff’s office. Norman started his career as a Kentucky State Trooper.

At H. W. Wilkey Elementary School, Grayson County Sheriff Norman Chaffins looks into a classroom for his grandson. He says his favorite part of the job is spending time each week with students at the school.

“This is the type of work that I like doing,” Chaffins says. “It aggravates me that people that have platforms where they can influence and impact others don't use that platform to do that.”

“I'll never forget, I was at a graduation and I was in uniform and a lady came up to me. She had a big smile on her face and she shook my hand.” Chaffins shared. She told Chaffins that she wanted to thank him. Chuckling, Chaffins responded to her, “Okay, what did I do?”

“I just want you to know that there's a little girl out here who just walked the line, whose papaw is not gonna see her graduate. I hope you rot in hell, you son of a bitch.” The woman said.

Plans for a new office come together as Norman (right) speaks to Lt. Sonny Poteet (left, on the phone) and IT staff member Lee Hollowell. The sheriff’s office will be moving to the old police department building after the completion of an addition. Planning and paperwork can be a large part of Norman’s work day when he is not out in the community.

On Dec. 9, 2015, while responding to a domestic violence call, Chaffins shot and killed 66-year-old Chris Hidgon.

“I dream about it," he says. "I have nightmares about it. I think about his family. I think about his sisters, I think about his daughter, his wife —– his wife was there.”

Chaffins raced down the road to the disturbance with Chief Deputy Corey Knochel in front. 

“All of a sudden Corey goes, 'Norman, he's at the end of the driveway. He's got a gun,'” Chaffins says. “I looked to my left, and he was standing about 150, 200 feet away from me.” 

Hidgon approached Chaffins with his gun drawn, and Norman fired off three rounds, striking and killing Hidgon with the third.

Norman reacts with frustration while arranging to pay the bill for an elderly constituent when a local not profit ran out of funds. “God has given me a platform to influence people and to impact people in a good way,” says Norman.

Chaffins was cleared of all charges by a grand jury but the shooting left a permanent mark.

“I always thought that if I had to shoot and kill someone, as long as I was justified, I would be OK. I’d just drive on, and everything's fine. Then when it actually happened, I realized it wasn't that easy,” he says.

Chaffins refuses to wear the medal of valor he received for his actions that night. To him, it's like celebrating a death.

“I say I'm a Christian, but I don't bow my head when I pray,” Chaffins says. “I know God forgives everybody, but I killed a guy.”

Norman stands for the national anthem during a game between the Grayson County Cougars and Owensboro High School. Norman’s son Greyson plays defensive back and wide receiver for the school.

The sun sets over a graveyard in Grayson County, Kentucky.

Story edited by Marley Parish

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