Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength said he is pleased with public safety efforts in 2011 and has several initiatives planned for 2012.
Augusta crime in most categories is down, including armed robberies, aggravated assault, rape, murder, burglaries and more. Armed robberies and aggravated assaults are at their lowest in four years, police said.
“It’s easy for people to say that you can finagle the stats, and you can,” Strength said. “We have never. We are showing exactly what they are. Our numbers are absolutely accurate, and crime is down this year.”
Strength credits programs such as the burglary task force for helping lower those numbers. He said by being aggressive in high-crime areas and working as a team, its officers have been successful in making arrests.
Operation Fox Hunt, a 19-month undercover operation that yielded at least 61 arrests in March, was also credited for helping bring down numbers. Strength said that operation is responsible for taking many career criminals off the street.
Some things the sheriff hopes to see in 2012 include the implementation of video cameras downtown. He said that it is more complicated than just putting up the cameras. There are obstacles, such as the site lines obstructed by city trees that would have to be addressed.
The deputy reserve program will hopefully get started in the first quarter of 2012. Because of budget restraints, the sheriff said he knew he would not be able to hire more deputies, so he found about 15 volunteers with law-enforcement experience who will help in high-crime areas.
The sheriff responded Friday to questions about the highs and lows of 2011, as well as his political future.
Q: The death of Deputy J.D. Paugh in October is still fresh in people’s minds. Is there anything you are doing to protect officers on the streets?
A: Any time a tragedy like Paugh happens, we make sure that everybody understands there is a chance that you could be faced with what J.D. was faced with, and not take situations for granted. We definitely talk to our folks about it. We stress safety, without a doubt.
Q: In November, shots were fired at an officer in Cherry Tree Crossing, and Lt. Robert West was run over while working a special duty assignment in Surrey Center, does this trend concern you?
A: It concerns us without a doubt. Our guys get up every morning in law enforcement and could be faced with these things. Law enforcement officers that died in the line of duty (nationwide) are up 13 percent this year. Those are alarming numbers. Two things do that: lack of respect for law enforcement is one, and the other is that we live in the most violent society that we ever have.
And it’s not just local; it’s all over the country. People are getting more violent towards officers.
Q: There were some discipline issues this year. Deputy Sylvester Rosier was arrested Dec. 15 on charges of DUI, hit and run, and fleeing and attempting to elude. Deputy Erik Norman admitted to altering DUI breath test results in November. Investigator Tess Alexander resigned after questions were raised on how she was using her fuel card in July. How do you handle that?
A: There are always bad apples. We have addressed every incident that we had where an officer did something wrong. We as law enforcement officers have to stay within the same lines as everybody else. We are not exempt. And when an officer goes bad, we have 100 percent of the time addressed that. We have terminated officers when necessary for policy violations. We have without a doubt arrested officers for criminal violations. We have sent officers to the penitentiary when necessary.
Q: This year, Cherry Tree Crossing was in the news for murders, shootings, stabbings and arrests. What can be done about that area?
A: If we had a solution that we thought absolutely would work, we would have done it. Any area like that – and I’m not throwing stones at only Cherry Tree Crossing – is about visibility. We have to have the officers there. Not everyone in Cherry Tree is a bad person. We have a lot of good people who live there too, and they want us there. We are not going to abandon the good citizens in Cherry Tree because it is a dangerous place, at times, to be. We are going to be there.
Q: What do you think was your biggest challenge in 2011?
A: The biggest challenge, always, is to keep the community as safe as possible. And doing that understaffed is a remarkable tribute to the men and women on the street.
Q: What are you most proud of in 2011?
A: The quality of officers that we have, and the job that they have done. A lot of people think the sheriff is doing a great job. The sheriff isn’t doing a great job, the men and women of this agency are doing a great job. That makes the sheriff look good.
Q: What is your focus for 2012?
A: The No. 1 thing is that we make sure that we do everything humanly possible to make sure our officers are safe. That is Utopia for us.
Q: Are you running for sheriff next year?
A: I will make a decision in the early part of next year, probably around February or March. Right now, I don’t know.