An Interview with Sheriff Jim Wilson
Interview by Gila Hayes
We should learn from the experiences of others and who better to ask about such lessons than retired county sheriff Jim Wilson, who saw and resolved countless instructive situations during his career when called to investigate after homes were broken into. With summer heat tempting folks to open windows and doors to cool down their homes, I thought members would benefit from a reminder that it’s a lot better to prevent a break-in than it is to have a midnight encounter with a burglar, so I asked Wilson for tips on how to increase safety at home.
eJournal: I appreciate the chance to pick your brain about ways to avoid being victims of crime inside our own homes.
Wilson: I think there are two real important things people need to realize. The first is how very dynamic home invasions can be; how quickly they occur. If a person is not prepared, has not done any home improvement or any planning, the door flies open, and those people are in their face immediately and they only have a matter of seconds to react in any manner.
The second thing I think is really important and that people don’t realize is that prevention of a home invasion is a layered thing. We can’t point at any one thing and say, “If only you had better locks…” It is lighting; it is locks; it is security video; it is having a little dog that will bark to let you know that something is going on. A lot of people don’t realize the importance of having a combination of prevention.
eJournal: That’s a great observation. We don’t always hear about the cumulative effect when we combine several elements: the dog, the security video, the locks, and so on.
Wilson: It does not have to be a whole bunch of major things. It might be just locking the door behind you when you come home. What you want to do is just make the target look not quite so inviting. That is a problem! An average American has a nice home, but it has a mortgage on it. They have two nice cars, but they’re paying for them, and they both have jobs to pay for it all. They do not consider themselves rich, but that crook driving down the street sees all of that and he thinks, “Those people are sure to have a lot of cash and jewelry and more.”
We need to keep in mind how we look to the criminal. We can make a less desirable target with good lighting. I live where we can have both the front and back yards fenced, so I can have a dog out there. The criminal does not need to know that he’s the family pet.
eJournal: You mentioned video, too. In many ways it has never been easier to add precautions like a camera or motion-activated lights. I can remember when wiring those in was really a big job. Now there are solar options for lighting that you just mount on the exterior and anything that walks through the beam activates a surprising splash of light. [Grinning] Of course, that’s going to happen whether the intruder is a raccoon coming to raid the garbage can or a more serious problem.
Wilson: Security lighting has indeed improved a great deal and it is part of home defense. I have a similar problem because of the deer walking by, the raccoon walking by, the javelina walking by so I wouldn’t necessarily have the motion-sensor light. I’ll tell you the lighting option I would have if I designed a home. I would install a master light switch in the master bedroom: one light switch that would turn on every light in the house, including outside, as well.
I do like the idea of good external lights, even though in my case I wouldn’t have the motion sensor. I like having the lights set up so that when I turn them on, I can see all the way around the house by checking different windows.
eJournal: And you’ve accomplished that without having to go outside and be exposed to the unknown threat about which you were concerned.
Wilson: We have to maintain our own individual defenses. Another thing that has always bothered me is that in the average American home the master bedroom is at one end of the house, and the children’s bedrooms will be far on the other end. Of course, we know that is for privacy, but suppose you do have someone get in the house, now you have got to get all the way to the other side of the house to check on or to protect the kids. I do not think that is a really good home design. Now, if you do have a home invasion at nighttime, that design causes you to expose yourself to danger just to check on the rest of your family. We want to minimize that.
eJournal: A home break in while the family sleeps at night is so terrifying that many people can’t even admit the possibility that it could happen to them. Someone who should not be there getting into the house is probably something you got called about a lot during your law enforcement career. How can we be better prepared?
Wilson: It’s a double-edged sword. First, let’s look at it from the citizen’s point. The citizen hears a noise at night and wakes up. If they follow the common advice and call police every time they hear a noise – well, you can see where that is going. The citizen thinks, “I don’t know what that noise was. I had better go look,” and they get into a situation that really does involve a burglar.
From the peace officer’s perspective, it is kind of the same deal. You get people who call in every time they hear a noise either inside or outside, and pretty soon the officers are not taking that real seriously. My solution has always been to have a nice, little house dog that will sure let me know if something is not right.
I recommend that citizens do as little home searching as possible. If you have got to get to the room where the kids are, then you have got to do it, but you want to minimize it. It can go bad in such a hurry, particularly in these violent attacks that we have seen in the news in the past few years. You read about a home invasion where the whole family was murdered. These are just really bad things.
eJournal: Home invasion reports should motivate us to set up both the house, and ourselves, to be less vulnerable. Yes, if possible, that might mean rearranging the room layout as you mentioned, but what about the view from the exterior? What about blinds? I have never been certain which is better: closed, which suggests no one is home, or open, which may show that only a child is home. What do you think?
Wilson: My recommendation, and what I do, is to keep my blinds down. I may open them during the day if I want to let light in, but at night I go through the house and I close the blinds, so you cannot look in. If you keep the blinds down, the bad guys do not have the opportunity to look in to see what is in that room or what is going on in the room.
Make sure that you have got good locks for your doors and for your windows, too. That is not going to keep someone from getting in, but getting in is going to take them longer and that buys you some time to wake up, realize that something is going on, maybe arm yourself, maybe call 9-1-1. It buys some time and that is important.
eJournal: Time to get ready is crucial. Response time to 9-1-1 calls for help varies widely and that is no longer only an issue for rural homes. Whether a patrol officer is going to respond to the call at all is now a legitimate question due to police defunding.
Even in cities, will your call for help be treated as important? Say you return home and the door you are sure you locked before you left is wide open or you find a broken-out window. I am not sure some police agencies are going to send officers to search your house. What is the poor burglary victim supposed to do?
Wilson: Well, if I can, I want the police to come make that check. I would avoid doing a house search if at all possible. Obviously, in some of the metropolitan areas that are having problems with defunding the police, you may not get a police response. In that case, you are going to have to do it yourself. If you do have to do a house search on your own, keep in mind that nobody knows the layout of your house like you do. You are armed and trained. You should be able to reach into a room and turn the light on. Light it up! There is no point to tippy-toeing around in the dark.
If the bad guy hears you, or he sees all of the lights come on and he jumps out the back window and leaves, you just won. I would light it up as I go, I would go very, very slowly, and realizing that nobody knows that house like I do, keep uppermost in mind all of the hiding places that I know.
A house search is not something that I want to do! My first priority is not going to be to get my gun and go do a house search. I would rather have a police officer do it.
eJournal: Absolutely, but it may require considerable patience to wait for police response where there are more calls than officers. [laughing] You may even have to go wait at your mother-in-law’s or somewhere else until you can get that help. Seriously, though, you hit on something that I want to go back to, “It is a win if the bad guy runs away.” You would be surprised how frequently people want to argue, “But anyone who would break into a house is dangerous. He might come back for revenge or go hurt someone else.” Then, off goes our intrepid homeowner to confront the bad guy.
Wilson: We are not police officers, and it is not our job to apprehend the bad guy. Coming across a bad guy, not in a burglary, but maybe one stealing something from your car would be even more common. You pull your gun on him, and maybe you tell him, “Put your hands up,” “Sit down,” whatever, but he says, “The heck with you!” and he turns around and walks or runs away. Let him go! We are not the police. It is not our job to apprehend bad guys. You can get into a real bad situation trying to play police officer in that kind of deal.
eJournal: I suspect there were times as sheriff that you had to go into buildings to figure out why you had been called to investigate, but the people you found inside were the people who belong there. How smart were they about communicating who they were and what they were doing?
Wilson: In law enforcement, you just get a feeling for people and for when you are being lied to. A lot of times a police officer can pull up at a scene, literally take a look at the several people standing there in the yard and say, “OK, he’s a good guy and he’s the bad guy” and be right. I used to tell the recruits at the police academy, “A police officer is not in the law business. A police officer is in the people business.” I am afraid we are losing some of that in today’s law enforcement and I think that is unfortunate.
I know there were many times that I pulled up on a scene where the citizen was armed, and I did not feel any need to disarm the person. He wasn’t pointing the gun at me, he had it pointed at the ground and sure enough, he was the good guy. I might say, “Well, hey, buddy, let’s lay the gun down and have you come over here and talk to me.” A lot of that is changing now, and that is unfortunate, so I just really caution people, don’t have the gun in your hand when the police arrive. If you do, you are sure liable to get hurt.
If you come home and your door is wide open, and you called the police, be sure you do not have a gun in your hand when the police arrive. That is one of the easiest ways to get shot nowadays. There again, if the bad guy gets away because you do not have your gun out, that’s OK. I caution people, if you have a gun in your hand when the police arrive, your chances of getting shot are really, really good.
eJournal: It can take a surprisingly long time for police to arrive, and there you stand with someone at gunpoint. He starts mouthing off, acting squirrelly and our intrepid homeowner will wish he had just let him run off. He or she hopes that help is on its way, and it might be, but then again, it might arrive several hours later.
Wilson: The situation with police officers can differ in different parts of the country so let’s not forget about our neighbors. In some places, we don’t know our neighbors, and nobody cares. Nobody talks.
In other places we know who our neighbors are. There is some support right there! Get together with your neighbors, have coffee, and discuss things like home invasions. How can we help each other? How can we signal each other? Can I let my neighbor know where my house key is located, or where to find a house key? If you are in a situation where you know your neighbors and they are good folks, why not make that work for you?
eJournal: The old-fashioned term was “Neighborhood Watch,” and done right, it prevented more than prowlers. Because neighbors knew who belonged at what property, they might notice that an older person had not been seen when expected and needed medical help, and a lot more.
Wilson: I am not trying to be nosy, but I look around every morning as I come and go and maybe this morning there’s a car in front of your house that I have never seen before, or maybe I see some guy get out of the car and walk up, but I have never seen him before at your house. That might be the time that I would walk back into my house and just call you on the phone and say, “Everything OK over there, neighbor? OK, fine. Talk to you later, ‘bye.” Make that work in your neighborhood.
Sometimes crooks will drive around a neighborhood, looking and watching, and they may do that for quite a while before they pick out a victim. If they see us interacting with our neighbors, maybe that makes it look like too hard of a target for them.
eJournal: That multiplies the numbers of eyes looking out for danger, and if nothing else, folks feel more cared for, less alone, and they have the fulfillment of providing the same kind of concern to the people around them. It isn’t about acting like security guards; it puts the emphasis on staying connected and caring enough to ask the neighbor, “Is everything OK over there?” That’s really good.
Wilson: I think the biggest thing about home invasions, burglaries, and that sort of thing, is to really think about the effect of layering defenses. Just as you and I have done here these last few minutes, you start thinking about layering and you come up with lots of different types of defenses you can layer. Imagine you and I, and the neighbors on the other side of my house all sitting down and having coffee together and having this kind of conversation. Just imagine where we could go with it!
eJournal: Let’s take this outside the home. Perhaps you see someone going through your storage shed or the beam of a flashlight is moving through your detached garage. Maybe you have a very expensive set of Snap-On tools or an expensive car. If you see a stranger in your garage or workshop, it is going to be pretty hard not to go out to confront him. How dangerous is that?
Wilson: If I come up to an open door whether that is my shop or my house, I may very well stop right there at the front door, arm myself and I may say just as loud as I can, “I have got a gun. I am coming in. If you leave, I won’t hurt you.” Again, if they will go out the back window and run for it, that is great. Same way with the garage. Obviously, in different states the law is different, but you want to be really careful about using deadly force to protect property. Some states allow that. For years, Texas allowed you to use deadly force to prevent burglary at nighttime, but as an old ex-lawman, my advice is don’t use deadly force to protect property. To me, the use of deadly force should be to protect family, to protect human lives.
In some states you could get into a real problem over using deadly force or the threat of deadly force to protect property. I don’t recommend it. It is something to be avoided. If the bad guy gets away and if he gets away with your favorite fly-casting rod, handmade, that cost thousands of dollars, that is really too bad, but my recommendation is let the bad guy get away. Let the police catch him.
You think that is hard for citizens? Think about a guy like me that’s an ex-peace officer! It is really hard for me. I have to bite down, and remind myself, “You are not wearing a badge anymore. These young officers out in the cars can handle it just fine without you. It is not your job to go catching bad guys.”
eJournal: Regardless of career, none of us wants to be a milquetoast, none of us wants our hard-earned stuff taken. So, you are looking out of your kitchen window when you see the beam of a flashlight, and someone is going through your detached garage. Do you even go out there and yell for the intruder to go away? Do you just let your stuff walk down the street in the hands of the burglar?
Wilson: In my case, I would do everything I could to discourage him short of using deadly force. I would try to observe it a little bit before I went out, but I might arm myself and go out. It is my garage and I have a right to go out there. If he breaks and runs that is one thing; if he picks up an object and attacks me, that is another thing. It’s on my property, and I have the right to do this. It is fine to go investigate it if you are comfortable doing that and you are cautious about it.
eJournal: Earlier, you mentioned our reaction to hearing an unidentified bump or noise when we are home. Obviously, we won’t have a belt holster and belt loops on our pajamas, but I have to ask, “Why do folks take that gun off as soon as they come home after work?” If I am in the basement laundry room and my gun is in the lock box in my bedroom upstairs, if that noise is a violent intruder, I have to trek through a whole lot of house before I am armed for defense of myself. That’s not to say the gun is the only way we can fight, but frankly I’m a little old to be going hand to hand.
Wilson: Colonel Jeff Cooper said something one time in one of his writings that’s just always stuck with me. Essentially, what he said is if you are reading this, and you can’t lay your hand on your defensive firearm, all of your training has been a waste. I have a gun on the table where I usually work, I have a gun by the chair where I usually sit and read in the evenings, but for the most part, during the day, I have a gun on me. Without children in the home, we are able to lay a gun down within reach. If we have small children in the home, I am just going to leave that gun on me because I have better control of it. Wherever it is, whether it is on me or laying by the chair, I am still responsible for it. It just depends on the situation, but there is never anything wrong with just keeping the gun on. It is there, it is handy, and you are going to need it about that quick.
A good example that I like to give as how quickly things can happen, was October 1881, the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, AZ. That gun fight took about 30 seconds, and there were about 30 shots fired. If the bad guys kick your door down, and come blazing in there just as fast as they can, how much time do you have, really, to go get anything? The chances are, if it is not on you, you will not have time to get it.
eJournal: That’s all the more reason to get busy implementing those layered defenses you talked about! Thank you for sharing your experience, advice and how you apply it as a retired guy these days.
About Sheriff Jim Wilson: Wilson is a native Texan who was born in Austin and raised in San Antonio. For nearly 30 years, he served as a Texas Peace Officer in Denton and Crockett Counties. In 1988, he was elected Sheriff of Crockett County (Ozona), Texas, and served in that capacity until his retirement from law enforcement in 1996. After retiring from duty at the end of 1996, Jim began to write articles for various gun magazines and is currently a popular columnist with the NRA Shooting Illustrated, as well as posting at his own blog site at https://sheriffjimwilson.com/2023/