Richard Roundtree said his plan to run for Richmond County sheriff began to take shape more than six years ago, when he was a sergeant investigating violent crimes with the department.
He was encountering more and more young men who had been charged with murder who all had one thing in common: none of them had managed to graduate high school. Most hadn’t made it past the ninth grade.
That’s when he saw the direct correlation between education and the rate of violent crime in Augusta.
“I saw that there were no programs to try to prevent the violence that was on the rise and kept going up,” Roundtree said.
Roundtree said he spoke to Sheriff Ronnie Strength about his intentions and learned the sheriff wasn’t planning to stay in office past 2012.
“At that point I already had my bachelor’s degree,” he said. “That’s what made me go back to school for my master’s. I said if the time comes and Sheriff Strength does steps down, that will I put myself in position to be a viable candidate for sheriff.”
Roundtree, a native of Augusta and a graduate of T.W. Josey High School, said he was able to avoid a lot of the pitfalls facing black youths when he got a football scholarship to South Carolina State University, where he began studying electromechanical engineering.
“My sophomore year, I woke up and had an epiphany that I had to be a crime fighter,” he said. “I went back to school, changed my major and two years later graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice.”
Roundtree joined the Augusta Police Department and became a sheriff’s deputy after consolidation in 1996. He worked his way from road patrol to property crimes investigations and then violent crimes. While working as a homicide investigator, he earned a Master of Education degree from Troy University and attended the FBI academy in 2009, but was demoted after an episode in which investigative files were discovered in a former residence of his.
Not long after, Roundtree was hired by the Richmond County Board of Education as a lieutenant in charge of operations for the schools public safety department.
Roundtree said everything that has happened to him in the past six years – good and bad – has helped him prepare to be the county’s chief law enforcement officer.
Roundtree said working with the school system has only increased his passion for seeking ways to keep young men and women out of the criminal justice system. He said his work as a homicide investigator helped him see just how desperate some of these young offenders were.
“When you talked with some of these kids, you just saw a lack of hope in their eyes. You could see the disparity of it, and there was nothing being done to change it,” he said. “My oldest son is now 15 and will be 16 this year. I saw him, and I saw there was nothing being done to protect that next generation. And I wanted to be on the forefront of helping that.”
Roundtree said the sheriff can do more than just lock up offenders. The sheriff can be a leader in seeking solutions that help keep the county’s youth out of jails and into productive pursuits.
“The main thing is getting the community involved,” he said. “I believe in partnerships. My whole campaign philosophy is based on partnerships."
Roundtree said the incident downtown in which six people were wounded by gunfire on First Friday is an example of where the sheriff needs to exert more leadership.
“If you plan for these contingencies, you know what is going to happen,” he said. “You need to have a plan in place to let them know that ya’ll aren’t going to be downtown after 10 o’clock, because my officers are going to be here to prevent you from doing it. Criminals take the path of least resistance – if they already know that that behavior is not going to be tolerated, that the law is going to be strictly enforced, then they are not going to do it.”
Roundtree said he recalls that as he was leaving his campaign headquarters on Broad Street on July 6 at about 9:30 p.m., he could feel something was going to happen.
“I was talking to some people in my group and I said the demographic, the atmosphere is changing right now,” he said. “You could just see it standing there for 15 minutes in front of my headquarters. You could feel the whole atmosphere change.
You could actually feel that something is not right. Something is about to happen. You could see the tension. The groups were starting to gather and walking the streets.”
“I heard the sheriff say it is not budgeted for First Friday,” he said. “I think that is something that we need to address.”
PREVENTION AND REHABILITATION
Roundtree said that the current system places little emphasis on prevention of juvenile crime and the rehabilitation of young offenders. As sheriff, he would seek ways to find and fund more of these sorts of programs.
“I do not think there is enough being done at all,” he said. “I don’t think the resources that we have been throwing at the problem have been on the prevention side or the rehabilitation side.”
Roundtree said he would support and encourage legislators to create a program that would allow young offenders convicted of an initial felony to have their records expunged after serving their sentence. He said the current system offers no redemption for young offenders.
“South Carolina has one,” he said. “We need to take a look at it and see if it works because I believe in second chances.
Roundtree said that he would seek additional funding in the sheriff’s budget to pay for programs that would help reduce the county’s juvenile crime problem. He thinks it only makes sense that commissioners would find ways to fund such programs.
“Ideally, I think it would be in my budget,” he said. “I will ask. There is no doubt that I will ask for it.”
He said if people are willing to pay for additional deputies to help reduce crime, then they should be willing to pay for prevention programs. The goal, he said is the same.
“Aren’t you getting the same effect? I think we can come up with some model that will work and definitely put them on the table for the funding,” he said. “If the money is not there, that is where you have partnerships.”
Roundtree said he wants to make a lot of changes that will cost little or no money for the sheriff’s office. He wants a reserve deputy program, volunteer emergency response teams and technologies that will make the job of law enforcement more efficient and effective.
“Times have changed,” he said. “Ronnie Strength doesn’t have an e-mail address, he don’t have a computer in his office, but that is what he grew up in.”
One of the biggest things that need to be changed is the attitude of the force, Roundtree said. He wants to encourage an atmosphere where the deputies work with the public and all residents see the police as a force that is out to help them.
He said in some areas of the county, police aren’t welcome. He wants to change that.
“There’s no doubt, in some communities there is an adversarial relationship between the citizens and the sheriff’s office,” he said. “I worked homicide for years and the reason my success rate was so high was because of the people. It wasn’t me.
“People would talk. They wanted to talk.
“Now you hear the standard response from the sheriff’s office -- there’s a lot of people out there, but they don’t want to talk, because they don’t trust law enforcement.
A NEW PHILOSOPHY
Roundtree said that overall, it is time for a new way of looking at things. He said with sheriffs Charlie Webster and Strength in office, the county has had the same basic law enforcement philosophy for the past 28 years: “If they break the law, you lock them up.”
“They don’t see the effects that has had over 28 years. Because now we know that 90 percent of people incarcerated get out. And now they are walking your streets,” he said. “They don’t go to Chicago, they don’t go to L.A. or New York, they come right back to Augusta. Did that make your city better or make it worse?
“This is a different era, this is a different time, I’m a different generation of law enforcement. Things have changed now, the county has changed, this country has changed, so you have to have a different idea.”