Daily Sun photo/James Page
Tanner and Steward: Protecting and serving for 30 years
By Deanna Kirk Daily Sun
Mar 16, 2019
Morris Steward, Chief Deputy of Navarro County Sheriff's Department, and Sheriff Elmer Tanner have been together on the job at Navarro County Sheriff's Department for 30 years, as of March 1, 2019. The friends not only work together, they go all the way back to first grade together.
Two law enforcement officers serving side-by-side with the same agency for 30 years is probably fairly rare.
But what if those two men also went all the way through school together, starting in the first grade?
Navarro County Sheriff Elmer Tanner and Chief Deputy Morris Steward can make that claim. Growing up in Dawson, they saw each other pretty much daily until high school graduation.
“We graduated and went our separate ways,” said Steward. “Nine years later, we spot one another and we’re at the sheriff’s office. I’m wondering if he’s in trouble ... and he’s wondering the same thing about me.”
Turned out, they were both there the same day for a job with the Sheriff’s Department. Though they often worked different shifts, they’d see one another as shifts changed, starting March 1, 1989. Their career paths mirrored each other’s nearly all the way through the 30 year span.
“We went to police academy together at night, and took state tests together to get certifications,” Tanner said. “We always worked separate shifts in corrections. Morris’ shift relieved my shift, so we still saw each other. When we went to patrol division, we were still on different shifts but still interacted. Eventually we made our way to both being on day shift.”
Back then, there was no such thing as a tactical unit, or specialized unit of any kind. However, there was a desire to have a tactical unit, so the pair started going to tactical school, and created a unit in Navarro County that was first deployed in 1998.
“I was the only commander that unit had until I became sheriff in 2013, and Morris was always second in command,” Tanner said.
Both men have been married to their wives over 30 years: Morris, married to Valerie for 35 years, has one daughter, Letitia, who graduated from Tarleton State University in 2015, and works in customer service.
Tanner has been married to Mandy for 32 years, and they’re parents of Allison, who graduated from Tarleton in 2017, and Dustin who is now a junior at Tarleton.
When asked why all three of their children went to the same college, Tanner was quick to reply.
“Why do you think my kids went to Tarleton?” Tanner asked. “We never had any issue with crime, with traffic, only storms — no other issue whatsoever.”
Both men agree that having a strong wife, and tight-knit family unit are essential for a law enforcement person. If a cop doesn’t get support at home, often they do not stay in law enforcement very long.
“Maybe your wife cooked a five-course meal and she’s proud to show it off, and you call her and tell her you can’t come home,” Steward said. “Then when you do get home, you find the dinner in the microwave.
“You have to have a good spouse to make it being married to a law enforcement officer. In the day of the pager, it set off this specific tone ... when it went off while you’re eating in Cotton Patch with your family, the looks on your kid’s face ... they wonder why do you have to go and not someone else.”
Steward went on to say, the one day you don’t go, if another officer didn’t come home, or an officer was injured, he couldn’t live with that knowing he should have been there.
“It’s a way of life,” he said. “Some people can’t handle it.”
Tanner agreed, saying it’s being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it wasn’t until later they came up with the 12-hour shifts with weekends off like they have now. Holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving were often spent elsewhere than with family. Normal family life that most folks take for granted like attending baseball games, school programs, church — often were things in which they didn’t get to participate.
“We loved our families just as much, but we were in a career where that was a requirement, and we’re trying to juggle both,” Tanner said. “You feel like you’re stealing time to be with your family because the career draws on you so much.”
Reflecting on stories across their 30-year careers, many things come to mind: hostage situations, standoffs, manhunts, sexual assaults, drug arrests, bank robberies, suicides and the ones that stuck with them the most, homicides. The murders that involved children were especially hard.
“You don’t talk about stories from the past much,” Steward said. “You file it back and don’t let it consume you. I don’t want to live in the past, only for the next case I’m going to work.”
Steward was the case agent in the murder of Hanna Mack. The 6-year-old girl was found sexually assaulted and hanging in an outbuilding.
“Elmer was with me step by step,” Steward said. “I told him if I ever have to work another case like that, I’m quitting. That case took us on twists and turns, and I bet we talked to over 50 people. The one suspect who was never even on our radar, had DNA on file from a burglary he committed at Corsicana High School.”
That suspect’s DNA was at the scene, and was matched to his on file. It turned out the guy was friend’s with the little girl’s mother’s boyfriend, and both men were involved.
“I will never forget that case,” Steward said. “Every tiny piece of DNA that was on her, we had to retrieve it — because if you missed it, you may miss your suspect.”
Drugs have provided many stakeouts on crops, marijuana fields and other types of illegal drug activity, and Tanner had an opportunity to work with the DEA, attending its academy in Quantico, Virginia.
“I worked on a lot of those cases, too many to mention,” Tanner said. “The last federal case in 2012 was filed individually on a guy in Silver City. We seized $150,000 which paid for the Lenco BearCat, our armored vehicle.”
For that particular case, Tanner earned the United States Attorney’s Office Northern District of Texas Law Enforcement Commendation Award 2014. Two more awards of which he is proud are Deputy of the Year 2005, and Meritorious Conduct Award 2005.
Another case they recalled was when Tanner was in Criminal Investigations Division, and a fellow was found murdered at Hawkins Roller Company on East Highway 31.
“Through the investigation, we captured the suspect and learned he had escaped from the Alabama
Department of Corrections 25 years before he killed here,” Tanner said. “He killed a U.S. Army agent in a bar fight in Alabama. He bought an assumed identity, and lived in Texas almost 25 years.
“He was on a work release program from the penitentiary,” Steward said. “He walked off and never returned.”
The suspect was charged in the Hawkins murder, but it wasn’t until the officers went through a storage building and found transcripts from a trial with a different name on them that their radar went up.
“He had a specific tattoo on his person,” Tanner said. “We knew then we had the same guy. It was a pretty significant case, too.”
Through these 30 years, Tanner and Steward have worked in every department of the Sheriff’s Office, and have trickled over and helped one another with various cases, as well. They think one reason the NCSO employees find them relatable is because they have been through every single part of the department, starting from the ground up. They do understand what it’s like to work weekends, nights.
“We have used our experience and years of being there to help evolve the Sheriff’s Office and make it better for those who work there now,” Tanner said. “We want to be family-friendly. We have our own immediate family, and we have our extended family, and that’s law enforcement. We want to do everything we can to make that a pleasant experience at work for every one of our employees.”
They have also had to investigate officers, and others within the justice system.
“I 100 percent believe in community policing,” Tanner said. “From the first day I became sheriff, I told officers if they pass a country store or a farmer while on patrol, stop and introduce yourself, and get to know them a little. We’re only as good as the information we get.”
Both agree things have changed a lot through the years in the NCSO. The weapons are different, vehicles are different, and training is still continuous, with it being necessary to do continuing education and become re-certified every two years.
Another thing different these days?
“We have discussed it for a while now, and everything is about evolution,” Tanner said. “We can now have some facial hair, and some tattoos — with regulations — and it makes us more relatable, and elevates the comfort level. Not only is it a morale booster, it helps with hiring.”
“What Elmer and I try to do around the department is lead by example,” Steward said. “You lead every day by what you do. We have 135 employees, the largest department in county government. You have different personalities, but we try to mesh them all together and have a great department.”
Not only are the sheriff and chief deputy Navarro County natives, but with all their combined experience and thousands of hours of training, they consider themselves an investment for the citizens.
“We continue daily to try to pay that training forward by mentoring and teaching younger officers,” Tanner said.
“When you pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1, you want the best officer you can get,” Steward agreed.
One thing they do know — the work is never monotonous. In one day you can go from collecting over five pounds of China White heroin in the morning to searching for a lost autistic boy in the afternoon.
“Because of the historic low pay involved in being a police officer, the majority of officers must work off-duty jobs to make ends meet, and that’s hard on a family too,” Tanner said. “Many must work on their days off or after they finish their shift in order to feed their families.”
Both men are grateful to their wives and children who have continually supported them in what turned out to be far more than just a job, but lifelong careers serving the residents, protecting them, and enforcing the law.
The inevitable comparisons to Crockett and Tubbs, the guys on Swamp People, Batman and Robin, Lone Ranger and Tonto have all been heard by this law enforcing pair.
“We just run with it,” Steward said. “We’ve dealt with it all.”
“One thing I would say is we still maintain our credibility and our integrity,” Tanner said. “Those are two things you can not lose in law enforcement — we still have them today just like we did when we walked in the door.
“If I tell you something, it’s that way.”