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Brotherly love: Phillips twins followed one another into law enforcement, then into politics

Ronnie Phillips (left) is Scott County’s sheriff, while his twin brother Donnie is Scott County’s circuit court clerk.

As Ronnie and Donnie Phillips are having their picture taken, Ronnie doesn’t miss an opportunity to chide his brother.

“That will never work,” he says. “You’ve got to smile more.”

If Ronnie is one up at the moment, it won’t last long. Donnie will return fire at the first opportunity, and they’ll be even. And so it will go — until one or the other winds up on the receiving end of his brother’s sense of humor . . . and that won’t take long, either.

This is the side of the Phillips brothers — Scott County’s sheriff and circuit court clerk — that the public sometimes doesn’t see. After all, their profession — law and order — all too often isn’t a laughing matter. But their friends, family and coworkers, who are often on the receiving end of the brothers’ jokes, know this side well. It is the laid-back, laugh-often, personable demeanor that they carried with them during their law enforcement careers — back when they were just beat cops. It endeared them to many of those they came into contact with, even those who were on the wrong side of the law, and helped bolster their efforts when each sought elected office.

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These days, Donnie (he’s the court clerk) and Ronnie (he’s the sheriff) are Tennessee’s first twins to hold elected office together, a distinction they earned in 2014, when Scott County voters officially elected Ronnie as the county’s sheriff. By that point, Donnie had already been in elected office for eight years, having been voted into the circuit court clerk office in 2006.

Ronnie may have been eight years behind his brother when it came to entering the field of politics, but the paths they took to get there are just as much alike as they are — from their near-identical appearance and their aw-shucks personalities to their years of experience in law enforcement.

A start in law enforcement

Neither Donnie or Ronnie are exactly sure at what point they realized they wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement. “We grew up watching cop shows, like Andy Griffith,” Ronnie says; Donnie says it’s just something that came naturally to them.

“It’s just something I always wanted to do,” he says. “I went to Roane State and got my degree in criminal justice and it all just kinda came together from there.”

Both of the Phillips brothers say their venture into law enforcement is a bit odd because they were not following in the footsteps of any family. Political experience runs several generations deep in their family; their great-grandfather, Arthur Yancey, was the first mayor of Caryville, and both of their grandfathers — Bud Phillips and Milford “Spot” Chambers — were county commissioners, while Chambers was also a mayor in Huntsville. But there was no law enforcement experience in the family tree.

“It was an odd path for us to go on,” Donnie said.

But they did. And while their timing was a bit different — Donnie started at the Scott County Sheriff’s Department first, before Ronnie followed at the Oneida Police Department — they went through the police academy together, becoming the first twins to graduate from the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy at Donelson.

Donnie and Ronnie roomed together at Donelson — something that was not supposed to happen.

“They got confused because I walked through the line, and then Ronnie walked through,” Donnie said. “They thought it was me again, so they gave Ronnie the same room number as mine.”

Eventually, instructors figured out the mixup, “and then we got chewed out in class,” Ronnie said.

Police academy wasn’t the first place the brothers were able to confuse people, of course. They look alike now — so much alike that Donnie is often mistaken for the sheriff, and Ronnie is often mistaken for Donnie — but they looked even more alike in high school. And they used that to their advantage sometimes.

“We’d switch classes all the time,” Ronnie said. “We’d sneak out and switch shirts. I’d take his class and he’d take my class.”

Did the brothers’ fun-loving antics cause their Scott High teachers grief? “Absolutely,” Ronnie laughed, “especially Teddy Williams and Paulette King.”

Later, when Ronnie was a cop in Oneida and Donnie worked for the county, people continued to confuse them.

“Ronnie was always on day shift and I would work the evening shift or the midnight shift,” Donnie said. “I’d come to work that evening and I’d be out in Oneida somewhere, and people would look at me like, ‘How in the world do you even do that? You work up here during the day and then you turn around and work evenings for the county?’”

The brothers just played along.

“We’d just tell them we worked both places; just to have a little fun,” Ronnie said.

Moving into politics

Neither Donnie or Ronnie thought much about politics over the next decade-and-a-half. It was Donnie who made the move first, successfully running for circuit court clerk in the 2006 election. He admits that he was ready for a change.

“Every law enforcement officer will tell you that there comes a point in time that you’re just burned out,” he said. “Then you get over it, then it comes back again. After 10 or so years, I reached that point, and that’s when I ran for this office.”

In the early 2000s, Scott County’s sitting circuit court clerk, Jan Burress, died. County Commission appointed a replacement to serve the remainder of her term. Donnie Phillips applied, and didn’t earn the approval of the commissioners. He said a couple of commissioners told him that it would be a waste of time because he could not win a general election.

“That motivated me,” he said. “It gave me incentive to run in the election. I thought it was a great opportunity to better myself, but when certain people tell you that you can’t do something, you want to prove to them that you can do it.”

Ronnie’s move into politics came about a bit more slowly. He began his law enforcement career under Mike Cross when Cross was chief of police in Oneida. When Cross was elected sheriff in 2010, Phillips followed him as chief deputy. No one could have envisioned at the time that Cross would die just three years later. Phillips was appointed by County Commission to serve the rest of the term, then was elected to the office in the 2014 general election.

“I loved my job up there (in Oneida),” Ronnie said. “The mayor was great to me, the aldermen, the whole staff were great people and I loved working up there. I liked the people who lived in Oneida.”

But when Cross was elected sheriff, Ronnie Phillips saw an opportunity to better himself — just as his brother had seen four years earlier, when he ran for circuit court clerk. He didn’t envision being sheriff at the time, but fate happened.

And now? “It’s all that I would’ve expected it to be,” he said. “Some days I get 60, 70 or 100 calls on my cell phone. Sometimes it’s just hard to call somebody back that day and keep up with it all.”

If there’s a side of law enforcement that the community doesn’t see, Phillips said, it is the stress that officers endure — the same stress that his brother said causes most officers to reach a burn-out point sooner or later.

“The things you deal with, the things you see, you try to not take it home with you, but you can’t help it,” he said. “You go home thinking about it, you go to bed thinking about it, you wake up thinking about it. There are things you deal with that the public never hears about.”

No regrets

The brothers remain close, living on the family farm in Annadell, where they spend their time away from work helping their father — Pete — in the hay field or with his cattle. “It’s a family farm and everybody pitches in,” Donnie said. “That’s the only time I take off work. We cut hay twice a year, and I’ll take some days off just to help get the hay in during that week span.”

These days, in fact, Ronnie and Donnie work more closely together than they ever did as law enforcement officers. Their offices are both located in the Scott County Justice Center in Huntsville, and every criminal warrant goes through the circuit court clerk’s office.

“We shared more information before, because that’s what you do when you’re in law enforcement,” Donnie said. “But we didn’t actually work together like this.”

Like the sheriff’s job, the circuit court clerk’s job is hardly all fun and games.

“One thing about this office, when somebody comes in here, it’s usually for something unpleasant in their life,” Donnie said. “Whether it’s something as minor as a speeding ticket or a seatbelt violation, or a divorce, being arrested, or someone passing away, they usually don’t come in here unless something bad is happening.”

As they gear up for the 2018 election cycle — both plan to seek re-election — the Phillips brothers each say they do not regret their paths to this point in their life.

“If I had it to do over, I’d take the same steps again,” Donnie said.

And while their careers may be somewhat different these days, both say the secret to success in life is simple: treat others with respect.

“Even when I was a law enforcement officer and I had to arrest someone and take them to jail, I always tried to be respectful,” Donnie said. “Whether it was DUI, assault, drugs or whatever, I wanted to put myself in their shoes and treat them the way I’d want to be treated.

“That’s one of the steps to being successful in law enforcement,” he added. “Even if someone has committed a crime, treat them with respect. Put yourself in their shoes. You’re just a heartbeat away from something bad happening to you.”[/s2If]

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Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.
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