Ronnie Strength casually put his feet up on his wide, dark-wood desk.
For the past 11 years as Richmond County sheriff, he has used that desk to plan undercover operations, strategize initiatives and meet with concerned citizens. In less than 10 months, those will be part of his past. He couldn’t be happier.
“You don’t know the relief it was for me to make that announcement,” Strength said of retiring. “I’m excited, I really am.”
After phone calls from judges, commissioners, ministers and just about everyone in Augusta urging him to run again, Strength announced last week it will not happen. Now that he has made it clear he’s not coming back, Strength said the calls have taken on a different tone. Instead of begging and pleading, he gets tears.
But after his third election, he began to think this would be it. About 18 months ago, he selectively began to share his plans with people.
But many, some very close to him, didn’t want to accept his decision. They believed the community still needed him.
“I never got any support,” he said. “Not even from my wife.”
Some of those close to him also fear that he won’t be able to adjust after so many years of being on call 24/7, he said.
“They think I am going to retire, sit on the couch, and die in six months,” he said. “I will not let that happen, I can’t stop. I will be doing something.”
But it won’t be running for public office.
“If I was going to get another job,” he said, “I would run for sheriff again.”
When Strength walks out of 401 Walton Way for the last time Dec. 31 and climbs into his own car instead of car 1, he will be walking away from a lifestyle.
For more than three decades, Strength rose through the ranks from street patrol to sheriff. Although he admits the most fun he had on the job was his stint with violent crimes, he looks back on the entire experience with fondness. He credits former Sheriff Charlie Webster for laying a smooth path for him and for being the mentor and role model he needed after he lost his father in 1987.
Webster’s number one piece of advice: Never lie.
Strength, 66, said he has spent his tenure being as transparent as possible. His biggest hope is that people will remember him as a man who led his department with integrity.
And there have been some tough moments that called into question his leadership and the operation of his department.
Between Nov. 24, 2008, and Nov. 17, 2009, there were five shootings – four of them fatal – involving an officer with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office. After the Nov. 17, 2009 shooting of Michael Nestor involving three narcotics officers, The Augusta Chronicle reported that the city had a higher rate of police shootings per capita than larger cities such as Los Angeles and New York.
Strength said each shooting was investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation so there could be no question of a cover-up.
“The first thing is to be straightforward and honest,” he said. “…Proper steps were taken to investigate the shootings to be sure they were within the proper guidelines.”
The shooting of Justin Leonard Elmore, a 23-year-old in Cherry Tree Crossing in December 2008, created a volatile situation. As news of the shooting at the public housing complex spread, rocks and bottles were thrown at deputies, fires were set in trash bins, and extra deputies were called in for security. Strength reached out to community leaders to help calm things down but also made sure to have a clear show of force to prevent a riot.
He is quick to say there were only a few people determined to riot, and credited residents with helping keep things calm.
A few years earlier, Strength had to deal with a delicate situation that drew national media attention. In 2003, he denied requests by Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organization, to protest outside the gates of the Augusta National Golf Club over the club’s all-male membership.
The sheriff said the location on Washington Road presented a health and safety issue. The National later agreed to let protesters demonstrate on club-owned land several blocks from the entrance. The demonstration fizzled, as more media turned up than protesters.
One of the more unpleasant parts of Strength’s job has been having to investigate members of his department. Some were friends, such as Stoney Turnage, a former lieutenant who was arrested in 2001 for extortion and conspiracy.
But, he said, it comes with the territory.
“If you are dedicated and sworn to a position like I am, you have no problem doing what you have to do,” he said. “I have never, in my career, not investigated someone because he was my friend.”
Whoever takes over as Richmond County’s next sheriff is out of Strength’s hands. But that does not mean he isn’t invested in it. He said he won’t back a candidate until the July primary is over but hopes his successor will take honesty as seriously as he and Webster.
Strength’s retirement will be part of a likely shake-up of the department. There is a group that has decided to also retire, including his deputy sheriff.
The next generation’s time has come, Strength acknowledged, and he understands they will have their own ideas about running the office. But he said he hopes they also see how well his system has worked.
“There is a young bunch coming in here that’s very capable and dedicated,” he said. “They have worked with me for a long time though, and they know what works.”