The Augusta County Sheriff’s Office is reeling from the ongoing controversies over accreditation and an investigation into what happened with nearly $4,000 in money missing from the evidence room.
This in an era in which law enforcement nationwide is already being held up to closer public scrutiny.
The next sheriff will have his hands full with a lot of things – overseeing the day-to-day activities of a sprawling public-service agency, managing a roughly $6 million annual operating budget and 83 employees.
Rebuilding public trust in the sheriff’s office will have to be a top priority come Jan. 1 for one of the four candidates in the running to succeed Augusta County Sheriff Randy Fisher – Derek Almarode, Neil Kester, Todd Lloyd and Donald Smith.
“The men and women who come out here and protect this community are the ones who are bearing the brunt of this because nobody will come out and say that this is an administrative problem,” said Smith, a 12-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, who has been outspoken about the need for reform from the inside.
“This has nothing to do with the people who patrol the county. This has nothing to do with the people who come to your door when you make a service call. What people are saying is the entire agency is no good because of something that happened in one department. That’s painting the whole department with a wide brush, and it’s not fair,” Smith said.
Kester, a senior conservation officer with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, is making the same case from the outside.
“You will not believe the number of people who have come to me with stories about when they call for the sheriff’s office for services, and they don’t get it, or they’re not satisfied with it,” Kester said. “There’s a lot of people dissatisfied with the service delivery of the sheriff’s office. My main goal is to fix that, and it will take some time and effort on my part, and everybody else’s part, too. But it can be done, and it will be done.”
Both Kester and Smith have promised to rid the sheriff’s office of the image that it is run by a “good old boy” system that rewards friendships at the expense of on-the-job performance.
“I know for a fact that there are deputies there who have been there 10, 15 years, work their tails off, are good at what they do, deserve to be in line for promotion, but don’t get promoted because of that good old boy network. I would change that,” said Kester, who has raised ire within the ranks with his promise to “clean house” if elected, though he cautions that cleaning house doesn’t mean what his critics are trying to say it does.
“The rumor going around is that I’m going to go in there and clean house, fire everyone. You can use the term clean house, but that doesn’t mean you fire everybody. When I say I’m going to clean house, I mean I’m going to get rid of the bad, keep the good, and bring in more good,” Kester said.
“Am I going to go in and fire everybody? No. I can’t do that. I can’t run the sheriff’s office by myself. And I don’t need to, because there are a lot of good deputies there. There are some that need a little bit of guidance, training to get them in the right direction, and they’ve got potential, too. There’s a lot to build on there,” Kester said.
Smith stops short of saying he will “clean house,” but he makes it clear that he isn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers if elected.
“I flat-oppose the good old boy system. The sheriff’s office has chosen its own leadership for the past 40 years. They handpick the next person in line, and that’s a problem. That person is put in place, and they preserve the way things have always been done,” Smith said.
“I am an individual. I don’t go with the flow. I believe in doing what’s right. We have 40 years of a good old boy system that promotes people based on relationships. Not on their abilities, training, education, how they do their job. When you’re doing this job in Augusta County, with the land mass that we’re covering, you need people who are good cops,” Smith said.
Almarode is among those raising issue with the us-against-them battle lines that talk of good old boy networks and cleaning house might seem to promote. Almarode, a 21-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, feels voters need to have confidence that the department can continue to be able to answer service calls at midnight on Dec. 31, and that “consistency and continuity” between the Fisher administration and its successor are going to be paramount.
The next sheriff can take important steps to build relationships between the office and the public, Almarode said.
“What’s happened in the law enforcement world today is we’ve lost that relationship with our communities. That concerns me,” Almarode said. “If we allow that to happen in this community, we very well could be the next CNN national story, and I don’t want that to happen. We’re not going to prevent all bad things from happening, but when they do happen, we can operate from a level of trust.”
Lloyd, a 19-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, thinks a key part of the solution comes from within the organization.
“I believe that it is important to train all employees thoroughly so that they can do their jobs effectively and so that citizens are confident in the abilities of the sheriff’s office employees,” Lloyd said. “I also feel that it is extremely important for deputies to be visible throughout the community and to build relationships with citizens and business owners. I want them to get to know each area within the county and to take the time to solve problems when called upon.
“Deputies need to be seen at the schools and to gain the trust and respect of the youth within our county, so that if they need help, they feel comfortable reaching out to someone in our department.”
– Story by Chris Graham