Donald Smith knew from an early age that he wanted to work for the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office, and he’s not good at sitting back and waiting for things to just happen.
“I’m not someone who has learned from a book. What I know, I’ve learned from my time on patrol, in SWAT, in training. I want to take the bar in the sheriff’s office and raise it,” said Smith, who talked his way into an informal internship as a student at Fort Defiance High School, doing ride-alongs with deputies beginning in his sophomore year.
After graduating from Blue Ridge Community College in 2003, Smith was hired by the sheriff’s office, rising through the ranks to the position of assistant SWAT team commander.
“I have been on call 24-7 for 11 years. I come from the division in the sheriff’s office that does the work. That’s how I define myself. I am a worker,” said Smith, one of the four candidates for the open Augusta County sheriff position on the general election ballot on Nov. 3.
His experiences on the SWAT team have taken Smith all over the country for training, and he said that has opened his eyes to how different administrators bring different approaches to leading their organizations.
“I’ve noticed the difference between an engaged administrator and the figurehead-type administrator. I want to be engaged. Augusta County is not best served by an administrative-type sheriff,” said Smith, who promises to be hands-on as sheriff.
“No organization runs because a CEO-type person sits behind a desk,” Smith said. “Whatever kind of organization you’re talking about, a corporation, an agency, whatever, that person needs to be engaged. If you’re not engaged with the people who work in the day-to-day operations, you don’t know who’s doing the job, who to promote, what the problems are. You need to have your finger on the pulse of the organization to know how to make it run.”
Smith also promises to shake things up internally, starting with shift schedules.
“Our biggest call volume is two to ten. Most of our deputies work seven to three. That’s been a very touchy subject. That’s change, and people don’t like change. But it makes sense to deploy resources where they’re most needed,” said Smith, who also wants to beef up the sheriff’s office presence in the county school system.
The 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,” Smith said. “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.”
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,” Smith said. “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.”
Addressing the accreditation issue, Smith, like the other candidates in the race, calls it a “priority” to work to get the sheriff’s office back into the state accreditation program.
“We absolutely need to work to get the accreditation back. It’s essential that we do that,” said Smith, who sees the issue that arose out of reports that money had gone missing from the evidence room as one that risks breaching the public trust in the sheriff’s office.
“We’ve got a big problem. Whether the money went out in the trash, it was stolen, whatever, we have a problem. If we’re accredited with the money being missing, and not knowing what happened, and there are agencies all across the state are accredited by the same review process, that obviously devalues the accreditation process. It absolutely devalues it,” Smith said.
To Smith, the sum effect of the ongoing controversy over the missing money and the accreditation issue has resulted in sheriff’s deputies and employees being tainted as corrupt.
“Because this is still unresolved, people are saying that we’re all stealing money, taking evidence out of the evidence room. 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,” Smith said.
“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 will work to address the trust, accreditation and other issues with his sleeves rolled up and his hands at the ready to get dirty.
“I don’t want to just put policies in place,” Smith said. “I want to get out there and work alongside the people on the front lines to make sure that they work better. I want to get out there to help them. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have all the recipes to fix everything. But I feel like putting myself in the position of sheriff, surrounding myself with people who are smarter than me, who will help me, that we can work together to make the agency better, to make it work better for the people of Augusta County.”
– Story by Chris Graham