“Hi, I’m Sheriff Richard Roundtree. How are you today?”
The sheriff and about 20 deputies plunged into the Harrisburg neighborhood Wednesday afternoon, going door to door to introduce themselves, shake hands and pass out crime prevention tracts to whoever would take one.
Many were surprised to see him but greeted him warmly. One group of women stopped their car and asked him to pose for a photo.
It was his first full day on the job, and the new sheriff was still campaigning. Roundtree said it was no longer about winning votes, but about winning hearts and minds.
“This is the first step. The first day of my administration we want the people to know that we are going to be in the neighborhoods, not just this neighborhood but every one in the county we can get into,” Roundtree said. “This is not just campaign promises, this is a brand new day for us in Augusta.”
Roundtree says it is all part of his plan to engage and interact with the community. Central to that plan is the creation of the Community Services Division within the sheriff’s office.
In addition to continuing community programs, such as the neighborhood watch initiative and D.A.R.E. anti-drug program in county schools, Roundtree intends to launch five initiatives this year, each designed to improve community relations and boost internal morale.
The first initiative will be creating a citizens advisory board, he said. The board will consist of 12 members, 10 appointed by individual Augusta Commission members, one appointed by Mayor Deke Copenhaver and one student member appointed by the Richmond County Board of Education.
The board will meet monthly to bring its concerns to the sheriff and to learn more about law enforcement efforts in their communities.
“Those board members will be the first to attend the Citizen’s Academy,” said Capt. Wendy George, who has been chosen by Roundtree to lead the Community Services Division.
The Citizen’s Academy is a 12-week program that teaches participants about various aspects of the sheriff’s office and law enforcement, George said. Participants will go through an approval process that includes a criminal background check, she said, adding that they intend to have about three classes go through the course each year, with the first beginning in February.
Roundtree said the academy is another way to engage the community and create long-term relationships.
“It educates the community about law enforcement and then it creates a dialogue, so they know what law enforcement can and cannot do,” he said. “It will show how the citizens can work with law enforcement and then they become ambassadors to other people.”
Another program designed to develop long-term relationships and improve community relations is the Youth Explorer program, for ages 14 to 20.
It is a version of the Boy Scout Explorer program that will focus on public safety, Roundtree said.
He said his office had already been in discussion with Augusta-Richmond County Fire Chief Chris James to expand the Explorer program to include all aspects of public safety.
“It sparks an interest in some kids because they might not want to do Boy Scouts, but they are interested in public safety,” Roundtree said. “It is another example of partnerships. We believe in partnerships.”
Roundtree has two other initiatives that focus on the sheriff’s force, which he thinks will have a positive impact for all.
The first is the Sheriff’s Council, a group composed of deputies who will serve as a conduit for ideas and concerns from deputies Roundtree doesn’t speak with or meet during normal workdays, George said.
Roundtree said it will help him take “the pulse” of his force and help him understand the daily concerns of deputies on the front line of duty.
“In an agency of this size, of about 750 people, sometime they don’t feel that their concerns are making it up to the sheriff,” he said. “It gives them a direct line of communications throughout the agency, and I think it will improve morale because it lets them know that we are going to take the time to listen to what the deputies have to say.”
Another initiative that is intended to boost the size of his force and relieve some of the pressure on deputies and a strained budget is the reserve deputy program.
Roundtree said the program, which uses unpaid volunteers, has been proved in many other counties, including neighboring Columbia County.
He said the volunteers will have to meet all the standards and training of regular deputies, including state certification.
“You get manpower, additional trained officers that cost no money at all, but in addition these are concerned citizens of this county,” Roundtree said. “These are people who care about their community. Who would do the job and not get paid if they didn’t care about the job?”
Roundtree said he intends to foot the cost of training for some volunteers who don’t already have police experience or certification.
“We want the best. We want the ones who are civic-minded, who want to help this community,” he said.
Augusta Commissioner Joe Jackson said he wants to be one of the first to qualify for the program. He said it is an initiative he’s talked about for years.
“I’ve been one of the biggest cheerleaders behind it because I think it is something we need,” Jackson said. “It’s free labor that is another set of eyes and ears on the street.”
Jackson, who wasn’t a supporter of Roundtree during the campaign, said he’s encouraged by the things he seeing in the new administration.
“He has made some bold moves and the morale is up,” he said. “I’m going to support him the best I can through the commission and as a private citizen.”
Many of those Roundtree encountered in Harrisburg also seemed encouraged by the moves the new sheriff is making.
George Stanley said he was pleasantly surprised to see the sheriff at his doorstep on Watkins Street.
“That was the first time that I’d ever seen the sheriff here,” said Stanley, a retiree who has lived in the neighborhood since 2004. “He’s got the right idea.”
Stanley’s son, Frank, said he, too, was glad to see the sheriff visit their troubled neighborhood but remained cautious about the future.
“He really has increased his visibility,” he said. “I’d like to see him sustaining it.”