ASHE COUNTY—The Ashe County Sheriff’s Office recently finished filming the third – and possibly the last – season of the National Geographic documentary series, Southern Justice.
The series, which returned for its second season this past July, features law enforcement agencies in Ashe County and Sullivan County, Tenn., by following deputies responding to routine calls.
According to Ashe County Sheriff James Williams, the show began filming season three in October and finished up last week but National Geographic could be back to film for an additional week sometime in January.
Williams said that he believes the film crew was able to capture some great content in Ashe County over the last couple of months.
“I think they’re pretty pleased with what we had,” Williams said. “We probably aren’t quite as busy as we were in the summer months which may be the reason they are coming back for a week.”
This past September, Williams revealed that the third season of Southern Justice could be the last. Despite an original five-year contract with National Geographic and the show’s high ratings, Williams said the network has said it is considering moving away from law enforcement programming.
Southern Justice’s solid ratings brought the company back to film an additional eight episodes, however, Williams said. He believes those episodes will beginning airing in mid-April 2016.
Will the ACSO be sad to see the show go? Williams said he doesn’t think so, even though his deputies have a good working relationship with the show’s production crew.
“I think they’ll be glad. When somebody is sitting beside you with a camera on you all the time when you’re working, it gets a little old after a while,” Williams said. “But they’re really close to the guys who ride with them. They’re good people and we think a lot of them. They just get to be one of the guys after a while.”
Williams says two members of the film crew typically go out on calls with his deputies during the afternoon and evening hours when his office is the busiest. Members of the film crew even wear protective vests since the series is filmed as events actually happen, putting the crew in potentially dangerous situations.
“They’re riding right with them all the time. They wear ballistic vests just like the deputies do,” Williams said. “The call is what it is. Nothing’s embellished and nothing is staged.”
According to Williams, Southern Justice gives viewers the opportunity to see what his deputies endure on a daily basis.
“For years, everybody has lived on the scanners. Just about everybody had a scanner in the house listening to everything going on,” Williams said. “I thought when this started that now they could be a fly on the wall and actually live it, see it and know exactly how it goes and what it’s really like.”
Will Hopkins be back?
Former Ashe County Sheriffs’ Deputy Joshua Hopkins became a popular figure on Southern Justice during the series’ first and second seasons but recently left the ACSO in October just as filming for season three began.
According to Williams, Hopkins may have filmed a couple of episodes before his departure to serve on the warrant squad of the Carter County Sheriff’s Department in Elizabethton, Tenn.
Hopkins previously called the chance to work on the show “a blessing,” and credited it for helping to strengthen his relationship with his sister Wendy Hopkins.
Where does the money go?
According to Williams, National Geographic paid $35,000 for season one and $40,000 for seasons two and three.
Although the money from the contract goes to the county, Williams said he would like to see the funds used for the needs of the ACSO.
“It’s not taxpayer money, it’s nothing out of the taxpayer’s pocket,” Williams said. “It’s money that we have earned here at the sheriffs’ office and anything I use it for ultimately saves the taxpayers.”
Williams previously made a budgetary request of $40,000 from the Ashe County Board of Commissioners in early September but his request was denied in a 3-2 vote with with commissioners Gary Roark, Brien Richardson and Jeff Rose in opposition of the request.
Williams intended to use the funds to replace a vehicle with high mileage.
The board ultimately voted 5-0 to transfer $30,000 to the sheriffs’ office which had been set aside to fund a county administration vehicle.
Williams says he receives mostly positive feedback about the show with emails, calls and Facebook messages coming from viewers from all over the country — even from as far as the United Kingdom.
“I got a call from a guy in England who watched it on the internet and loved it,” Williams said. “As matter of fact, he’s looking to buy property and move to Ashe County.”
According to Williams, he believes the man is currently in the process of buying a place in Jefferson.
“I told him to come by and we’d give him an autograph,” Williams said.
Despite a few negative comments, Williams said many people talk about their love of the show and how they can’t wait for next week’s episode.
“A lot of people will call from states all over the U.S. and comment on how beautiful the county is and how friendly people seem to be and they’re impressed with the law enforcement here,” Williams said.
Earlier in May, a petition to remove Southern Justice off the air was started by Holly Parmer of Kingsport, Tenn. which is located in Sullivan County where a portion of the show is filmed.
Parmer stated that the show was exploiting people who live in the Appalachian region for TV ratings. According to www.change.org, only 67 people were in support of the petition.
Williams said that he spoke with the show’s producer prior to agreeing to film the series to make sure that Southern Justice wouldn’t resemble other staged reality shows or portray Ashe County negatively.
“It being National Geographic, they are not your run-of-the-mill type people. National Geographic is pretty respectable,” Williams said. “He assured me that they would portray our county and sheriffs’ office in a positive light and they have. They stuck with their end of the deal.”
Hannah Myers can be reached at 336-846-7164 or on Twitter @cmedia_hmyers.