Richard Roundtree knows he would make history should he become Richmond County’s first black sheriff.
But it is the 21st century, and part of him thinks those sort of milestones should be long passed.
“I never thought I would be the first African-American sheriff,” he said. “I never thought I would be the first African-American anything.”
Roundtree already can look back and see how far he has come.
He grew up on his grandparents’ small farm in the St. Clair community near Keysville, Ga., in Burke County. He can recall milking cows, feeding chickens and toting firewood at an early age.
“We didn’t have hot water inside the house. We had no heat; we had a fireplace to keep warm,” he said. “We had to get up at
4 in the morning to start a fire to heat the house for everybody. When I grew up, we didn’t have a lot of things at all that most kids take for granted.”
His parents moved to a one-bedroom apartment on East Boundary when he was 6 so he could attend Wilkinson Garden Elementary School.
“It was a very modest apartment, but having electricity, indoor plumbing, hot and cold running water – it was the big city to me,” he said.
In the summers, however, it was back to the farm, where he stayed while his parents worked.
Getting a chance
One story sticks out in his mind. Once, a traveling salesman paid a visit to the farmhouse. The man had a few toys, including a plastic water pistol.
“I begged and begged my grandfather if I could have it, and he said, ‘No, we can’t afford it,’ ” Roundtree said. “It cost a quarter.”
That kind of upbringing kept him out of trouble and made him appreciate the few things he had in life, Roundtree said. He learned the value of hard work, excelled at his studies in school and ended up with a college scholarship when he graduated from T.W. Josey High School in 1987.
The scholarship, however, was for football, not academics. Roundtree said he didn’t start playing football until his junior year at Josey. Until then, he was occupied with other pursuits, such as engineering and music.
“I didn’t even like football. I was in the band. I played trombone,” he said. “But then I started growing larger than the average kids. I had a growth spurt.”
Josey’s coach took notice and persuaded him to join the team two weeks before the first game. He was riding the bench as a second-string offensive tackle when the coach called on him to fill in on defense.
He started every game afterward, Roundtree said.
He pursued a degree in engineering at South Carolina State University for two years before he had a change of heart. He wanted to be a police officer.
“I had an epiphany that I was born to be a crime fighter,” he said. “I woke up, and I just knew.”
Finding a purpose
He started working as a part-time security officer at Regency Mall and applied for a job with the Augusta Police Department. He was hired in 1993.
Roundtree said he learned a lot about police work in the three years he spent with the APD.
“It was bang, bang, shoot ’em up every day,” he said “It was running and gunning. Every day was an action-packed day.”
He took advantage of every class the department offered and worked all kinds of calls.
“It gave me a good, solid background on everything you could see in law enforcement,” he said.
It also gave him his first taste of real community policing. He knew everyone on his beat, from the kids to the shop owners to the prostitutes on the street corners.
“I got to know the people,” he said. “You called them by name; they called you by name.”
In 1996, the city and county consolidated, and Roundtree moved to the sheriff’s force. His first assignment was crime suppression – “athletic young guys who liked to run” – whose job was to chase and arrest street-level drug dealers.
From there he was promoted to investigating property crimes and then to violent crimes in 1998. In 2000, he became a homicide investigator and remained one for most of the next decade, earning the rank of sergeant.
He soon found, though, that the life of a homicide investigator does not fit well with having a family.
“When that pager went off, I was going to be out three days, and I was going to catch a killer,” he said.
He loved the work and loved helping families who had lost a loved one. But he lost sight of his own, and his marriage suffered.
“I remember my mom telling me, ‘Son, you got to find some time for your family,’ ” he said. “I thought I was doing the greater good by helping these people, but I was losing my family.”
He said he still regrets the time he missed with his oldest son and has been working to make good on broken promises since he left the sheriff’s office.
“We were apart almost three years before my son realized we were divorced,” he said. “His dad was never home.”
Roundtree’s career as a sheriff’s investigator hit a rough patch in 2008 while he was away at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.
An investigation concluded that Roundtree had left behind several homicide case files in a former residence on Telfair Street. The property was sold and the new owners found the files, along with some of Roundtree’s belongings.
After a sheriff’s review board hearing, Roundtree was demoted for violating sheriff’s policy and placed on 12 months’ probation. He was forced to leave the violent crimes division.
According to records obtained by The Augusta Chronicle, it was the seventh time he had received disciplinary action from the department. Roundtree was suspended for a total of 16 days and had two written warnings, according to his personnel file.
Roundtree admits that taking the files out of the office violated policy, but he said they were “cold cases” he was trying to solve. He said he had not completely moved out of the apartment when the files were discovered.
“I hadn’t moved out. I still had a key,” he said, explaining that he still had clothes and his grandfather’s rifle in the apartment, things he wouldn’t abandon.
At the time, Roundtree also was investigated on allegations that he had inappropriate contact with a female inmate during a criminal investigation.
The inmate, a witness in a homicide, was checked out of the jail on at least seven occasions.
Roundtree maintains he did nothing wrong in that situation, and he was not disciplined.
Chasing a dream
The demotion left a cloud over his career, and when he saw a chance to move on to another job, he took it. Within a few months of the incident, Roundtree was hired by the Richmond County Board of Education as a lieutenant in charge of operations for the school system’s public safety department.
Roundtree said all the events and decisions that have led him to where he is now have prepared him for the job as sheriff. He says he is a little humbler and wiser than he was five years ago.
He said knows a lot of people will be hoping for his success and watching him if he takes office in January.
Many are like the wide-eyed boy he once was. His billboards and signs have made him famous enough now that children who see him in stores or on the street will point him out and whisper.
“They say, ‘That’s Richard Roundtree; he’s going to be sheriff,’ ” he said.