Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story did not accurately reflect the sheriff's time in office.
Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree is midway through his first year in office. The Augusta Chronicle spoke with him last week about his experiences so far as the county’s chief law enforcement officer. Responses were shortened due to space.
Q: How would you rate your first seven months in office?
A: I think we’ve been very successful. I told my command staff when we started, that it was a big issue: officer morale and the salaries of officers. I told them it is my plan, it is my intent to go before the commission and ask for salary increases for my deputies. And I have not made a secret of that, and I told the commissioners that. But I told them when I come, I want to show you a product. And we have benchmarks to show we want to have tangible results to show. We want to show our violent crime rate is down, we want to show our homicide rate is down, we want to be able to show our traffic fatality rate is down, and I think we’re achieving those things. We’re at the halfway point, and everything we set out to accomplish as to lowering the crime rate and the death rate and the traffic fatality rate, we’ve accomplished.
Q: What’s been the biggest surprise so far?
A: The only part that I’m trying to, I guess, get a grasp of or handle on is I didn’t realize how much politics there was involved in this county government. That’s been the hardest thing for me to understand. Because my philosophy is if things are simple enough and you can help somebody, help somebody. Why would I go round and round about why I can’t when I know I can? I see people have different political agendas, people have their own personal agendas and that’s the hardest part for me. That’s the most surprising that people would put their own needs above the needs of this county.
Q: You increased the number of officers in the traffic division when you became sheriff and deputies have issued 2,000 more speeding tickets through May than the same period last year. What has been the response to this and what kind of message do you hope to send?
A: We have a 36-man traffic division, but our goal was to reduce traffic fatalities, which we have done. It’s not about tickets. It’s about making contacts with the citizens so we can modify their behavior. Look at the number of car seat violations we had during Operation Rolling Thunder. Each one of those is a potential for disaster. We want to make people aware of that. In the same token, by issuing those citations for the seats, then we turn around and offer car seat safety checks and inspections for free. We’re trying to change a lifestyle for the better. Our traffic fatalities are down as opposed to last year, our warrants and traffic tickets are up but those are contacts. The myth is I make money off tickets. I get 15 percent of a ticket. A seat belt violation is $25. I get 15 percent of $25 – you do the math. And then whatever we get for traffic citations has to be used for jail construction and jail personnel. I can’t use the money for anything else.
Q: How would you rate the success of Operation Rolling Thunder? What are the plans to continue traffic safety? Was it about the money?
A: I think it was a tremendous success. Look how many DUIs we caught in that period of time. Every DUI is potentially a 2,000-pound bullet riding around the city of Augusta that has the potential to kill a family. We need to start looking at things in the positive and not the negative because you can survive a night in jail, but you can’t survive if you wrap that car around a tree. The only thing the operation did was bring in awareness and additional resources.
Q: You came into an organization that had a continuous administration and culture for almost 30 years with Ronnie Strength working under Charles Webster and then becoming sheriff himself. How have you changed the culture and how has that transition been? How have deputies responded?
A: We’ve seen morale skyrocket. I think they see me as part of the agency and not just the agency head. If you take care of your employees, they’re going to do a great job for you. They’re going to bind to your philosophy, they’re going to interact with the citizens. And I’m allowing them to do that. I tell them it’s not about stats. It’s not about numbers. I have them look for ways and innovative ways to solve crimes. And the simple fact is that we recognize officers. In a staff meeting if my officers have done something we recognize them and put them on the Facebook page or we do pictures with them, we give them gift cards and we give them plaques. They’re the backbone of the agency, so when someone does something good we publicly acknowledge it. I think for a while officers were just considering themselves report takers. Now I make them directly responsible trying to reduce crime in the area.
Q: There was some criticism about your choice to put your name on the side of patrol cars. What was the rationale behind that?
A: We didn’t go into it about putting my name on the patrol cars. That is the logo of the sheriff’s office. That is our logo on every piece of paperwork you see. People made a big deal about it, but like I said before, the cars that we bought, we got them for $2,000 less, they spent another thousand dollars on a two-tone paint job, so out of 41 cars I bought we bought them for $3,000 less per car and it’s a $10 peel-off decal. Some people made the comment, ‘What if he ain’t sheriff no more if he don’t win?’ Peel the decal off. Just peel it off. If I die in office, run for Congress or whatever it may be, it will cost more to change the stationery than it would be to change the logo on the cars. People want to make it a controversy, and it’s not. They want to say I put my name on the car. I didn’t. We put the logo on the car. Just like we got it on our business cards. Anything that comes from this office will have that seal.
Q: Where do you see the department in six months? What are the main things you want to get accomplished?
A: We definitely want to get our gang task force in place. I really want to see my camera system and surveillance systems expanded throughout the county. We’re trying to get our own radio network system. It’s going to cost about $10 million. But right now we’re leasing and paying $750,000 a year to lease a radio system. And being the largest full service sheriff’s department in the state of Georgia, we should be leading the way. We’re already expanding our training academy. Next year we’re going to be offering all specialized advanced training courses here in Richmond County, so we want people to be coming from all over the state and nation to Richmond County for specialized training. We’re in the process again leaning toward state accreditation by the end of next year then national accreditation by the end of my first term.