Spoiler alert: We’re not going to tell you to vote for a specific candidate among the four-man field vying for the Augusta County sheriff job.
It’s kind of a cop out on our part, and kind of a concession to reality. We’ve had the fortune over the past couple of weeks to sit down with the candidates – Derek Almarode, Neil Kester, Todd Lloyd and Donald Smith – to ask lots of questions, on the record and off, about how the sheriff’s office runs now, how it should run in the future, about how people generally view law enforcement in the current charged climate, about life in general.
Cop out, reality, whatever, the sum effect of our time invested in the interview process has us confident that Augusta County is in good shape whatever the choice is on Nov. 3.
That said, we still want to offer an endorsement in the race, taking a different form than tradition would seem to dictate.
Our approach is to sort of try to build the perfect sheriff from among the bits and pieces of policy proposals that came out of our conversations with the candidates.
Ideally, to us, the next sheriff would incorporate not only his agenda upon taking the oath of office, but borrow the best ideas of his political opponents and put them into place, maybe even with their help.
(We did use the word ideally there.)
Without any further adieu …
Crime analyst position: Almarode has proposed the creation of a crime analyst position that would be responsible for “looking at the agency in and of itself, looking at how it operates and the efficiency in which it operates, and then reconstruct things so that we’re doing what we need to do in terms of patrols and enforcement.”
This should be a top focus for whoever is elected, in our view.
“That crime-analyst position will allow us to do that with data,” said Almarode, a 21-year veteran of the sheriff’s office. “When you have long-term data in front of you, you can almost predict certain things. It won’t be able to do so right at the outset. In its infancy, it’s going to take some time to build up the database that we’ll need to be able to use it to see patterns and make sense of what is happening. But over time, we will be able to see what we need to address.”
Without data as a guide, the sheriff’s office sort of wings it in terms of deploying resources.
“Right now, we patrol the same way we patrolled 20 years ago,” Almarode said. “The goal is that we’re actually in the areas that we’re needed. We’re present throughout the county, but we have enough information on what the problem areas are, where we need to put our attention, where the greatest need is. So we saturate those areas as much as we can, but we also have officers accessible in other parts of the county.”
More emphasis on illegal drug investigations: Kester and Lloyd are big on re-engaging the sheriff’s office in regional drug task force activities. We’ll give the floor here to Lloyd to lay out the benefits to Augusta County residents.
“I believe that it is essential to assign more deputies from the sheriff’s office as well as other law enforcement agencies to the narcotics/gang division task force,” said Lloyd, a 19-year veteran of the sheriff’s office. “Drugs are often a key factor when crimes are committed. If elected, I will ensure that deputies receive as much specialized and up to date training as possible so that we can keep Augusta County safe.”
More work in combating online sexual crimes against children: Again, the floor goes to Lloyd.
“By having our deputies participate with other local law enforcement agencies in online sting operations that take place several times throughout the year, we can ensure that the children in our community are protected from those using the Internet for harm,” said Lloyd, who wants to create a division of deputies to handle investigations of online sex crimes full time.
Increased law enforcement presence in county schools: The sheriff’s office currently has five school-resource officers on staff to cover the school system’s 20 schools. Smith sees an obvious security issue presenting itself.
“We have all these schools scattered across the county, they have no school-resource officer, the doors are unlocked, they have no surveillance,” said Smith, a 12-year veteran of the sheriff’s office. “If you study the school shootings, there’s never been a documented shooting with a school-resource officer present, in unmarked cars, with our officers out of uniform. Uniformed police presence is a deterrent. We need to address this if we want to keep our schools safe.”
Moving the county animal control office under the purview of the sheriff’s office: Smart idea from Almarode to boost the roster at the sheriff’s office without adding to the bottom-line expense for county taxpayers.
“I want to deputize them, retrain them, retool them, bring them under the auspices of the sheriff. They still have their day-to-day duties as animal-control officers, but in the event that we need them as support or as law-enforcement agents, they are there. That’s using current county resources to expand our department, using what we already have to establish some growth,” Almarode said.
Citizens police academy: This idea popped up across the board, and we love it. We’ll let Kester describe the value of the academy.
“You shoot our guns, you drive our cars, you do the things that we do. That way you can get perspective of what a deputy really does in an eight-, ten-, twelve-hour shift. Come see what we do,” said Kester, currently a senior conservation officer with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, with previous experience with the Staunton Police Department, which has had success with its own citizens police academy program over the years.
Agricultural crime: Kester said a lot of agricultural crimes – involving livestock, equipment, property damage and the like – go unreported because agricultural crimes are not prioritized.
“We’ll start with one deputy, but I feel that we’ll need to build it over time, because as people understand that we’re taking these crimes seriously, they’ll start reporting more of the crimes that are already taking place,” Kester said.
“People in the agricultural community deserve having somebody come out and give them a little bit of time investigating their reports, taking them seriously, the same as anybody else in the community.”
Deputy sheriff foundation: This one comes from Almarode, who wants to organize an effort to establish a foundation to generate funding for education and training and fallback funding for deputies injured in the line of duty.
“The first thing that people cut in a budget when you’re counting pennies is support for your staff,” Almarode said. “You’re talking about the education, you’re talking about training, you’re talking about what happens when one of our deputies gets hurt in the line of duty, falls into financial trouble and runs out of options.
“We struggle every year to find money to keep these things alive. The foundation would generate funding to keep those alive even in a tough budget year,” Almarode said.
Revive the deputy reserves program: Again, this was on agendas across the board. Kester is among those who got his start in law enforcement as a reserve, and while standards are a bit more demanding today, “we need to look at this as a way to deal with our manpower issues,” Kester said.
“I don’t see any issue with taking on that expense, because you end up getting free help for five, ten years, maybe longer, once you get that person in the program,” Kester said.
Physical fitness: Smith has strong ideas on how the sheriff’s office needs to raise the bar in terms of the health and fitness of its employees.
“I don’t believe that it does us any good to have deputies who are 300 pounds and have a hard time fitting behind the steering wheel,” said Smith, who wants to raise the office’s physical-fitness standards.
“The department as a whole needs to get healthier. That will increase morale, one, and two, the best way to inoculate yourself to stress is to work out, to raise your heart rate, control your breathing, and prepare yourself for stressful situations,” Smith said.
– Story by Chris Graham