By Staff Reports
The rural designation is used for sheriffs’ offices which serve populations of less than 20,000, according to Patrick County Sheriff Dan Smith.
He added figures from the 2019 Crime in Virginia Publication, court records, Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), office statistical data and assisting law enforcement agencies were used to compile the report. Crime data from the Crime in Virginia Publication for the year 2020 and DMV crash data will not be available until this summer.
According to the 2019 Crime in Virginia Publication, the City of Roanoke had the highest crime rate for any jurisdiction in the state in 2019, at 11.41 percent. Patrick County’s crime rate was 3.57 percent in 2019, which is significantly lower than the state average of 4.93 percent.
Still, more than 17,000 calls for service in 2020 were dispatched by the Patrick County E911 center, which is under Smith’s purview. Call data shows the total includes 14,000 law enforcement calls.
State law commands county sheriffs in Virginia to provide primary law enforcement services, serve court process, provide court security, and to provide care, custody and transportation for inmates in local jails.
Smith said that currently only 12 deputies broken down into four shifts of three deputies each are responsible for patrolling nearly 500 square miles, 24/7/365.
When training, injuries, illness, maternity leave, and scheduling off for built up compensation time are factored in, usually only two deputies cover a patrol shift.
Patrick Sheriff’s Capt. Rob Coleman, who supervises the uniform operations division of the office, regularly fills in to cover patrol shortages.
During business hours, when both courts are operational, there are more challenges to the already taxed system, Smith said.
Still, “weekends and nighttime our biggest patrol staffing challenges. Our deputies routinely travel from the Henry County line to the Carroll County line, responding to calls for service without back up. It doesn’t get any more dangerous than that,” Smith said.
Smith’s office is also responsible for serving all court documents produced by the three different county courts, he said.
For example, 8,838 papers were served by deputies last year, excluding arrest warrants, Smith said.
Most counties which produce a high number of court documents have two full-time civil process deputies. Patrick has one, with patrol deputies also helping with those duties, Smith said.
Additionally, the sheriff must ensure full-time security is provided to two court buildings – one on the third floor of Patrick County Veterans Memorial Building and the other on Main Street.
“Up until just a few years ago, we were one of the only counties in the state which did not provide full-time building security for our courts,” Smith said. But numerous judges mandated that court security be enhanced.
Additionally, the sheriff’s office stations a School Resource Officer (SRO) at each school in the county, courtesy of a unanimous vote from the board of supervisors in 2013 following the Sandy Hook, Conn. tragedy.
Capt. Eric O’Connell heads the investigations division, Smith said of the division that includes three additional criminal investigators. Each of the four investigators maintains an active case load of 60 to 80 felony cases.
“Obviously, one human being cannot devote the time deserved to each one of those cases. Investigators prioritize the best they can,” Smith said, and added that his office was most-taxed when it had to conduct three homicide investigations in one year.
The investigations “basically involve the entire office and drain all of our available resources,” he said.
Smith’s office also is the lead investigative agency in all crimes against children, including child abuse, child neglect and child sexual abuse.
According to state law, Patrick County Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Vipperman heads the county’s Sexual Assault Response Team. Her office received a grant a few years ago that fully funded a sheriff’s investigator to investigate all crimes of violence against females ages 11 and older.
“For too many years, our national culture did not take crimes against women serious enough, that is certainly not the case in Patrick County,” Smith said.
Additionally, Patrick County “has the unfortunate distinction of being situated near the Mexican Drug Cartel trafficking corridor. Our special investigation unit, comprised of just two investigators, has led investigations that have resulted in the indictment of more than 800 drug dealers since 2008,” Smith said.
The Ararat, County Line and Fairystone communities have felt the most impact from illegal drug distribution, with more than 250 drug dealers indicted from the Ararat area alone in the last 13 years, Smith said.
“Methamphetamine, Heroin, prescription opioids and Fentanyl have caused numerous overdose deaths in our county, and we will remain vigilant in finding and arresting every drug dealer possible,” Smith said.
Patrick deputies have saved the lives of 10 people since being issued the resuscitating drug Nalaxone (Narcan) two years ago. Deputies respond to all overdoses, and are trained to treat each one as a potential crime. “If we can prove who supplied the deadly drug, you will be arrested and prosecuted,” the sheriff said.
The Patrick County Jail is headed by Lt. Jackie Bird.
Jail personnel are tasked with providing care, custody and transportation to an average daily population of 124 inmates. More than 1,800 inmate transports were conducted by deputies in 2020.
“We have recently housed as many as 150 inmates in our jail,” Smith said.
Only 24 deputies are funded by the state, including Bird and two medical deputies, to run the jail.
Smith said the jail is “severely understaffed” when compared to the Virginia Department of Corrections minimum safe staffing formula of one officer for every three inmates.
“We are operating at a one to five deputy to inmate ratio in the jail,” Smith said. “I ask each year in my budget request to the state for more funding and I am routinely denied.”
Smith said he will not ask the county’s board of supervisors to fund more positions because the county simply cannot afford it. But he said he remains hopeful that the state will realize the staffing situation in the jail is critical and will fund additional positions.
There are four shifts of five deputies in the jail. When illness, injury, training and leave are taken into account, usually only four deputies are on duty at a time in the jail to provide care for the 124 inmates.
Both jail and patrol deputies are involved in the transport of mental health patients to hospitals throughout the state, Smith said, and added that state law mandates sheriff’s offices are responsible for the care, custody and transportation of those in custody under a Temporary Detention Order (TDO).
“The mental health process is an absolute disaster at the state level, with state hospitals often refusing patients to be admitted, leaving deputies responsible for the care of the mentally ill for often more than 24 hours,” Smith said.
While Smith said he maintains a close working relationship with Piedmont Community Services, the issue lies with the state not providing enough bed space for treatment.
“We have been talking about this problem for years, and Richmond has done nothing but force the sheriff’s deputy to take care of the mental patient,” Smith said.
Smith and his office also enjoy a close working relationship with the Virginia State Police and the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), which routinely assists on calls for service, the sheriff said.
Patrick Meade, a special agent with the Virginia State Police, also regularly assists the special investigations unit on active covert narcotics cases, Smith said. According to data from both agencies, they assisted the sheriff’s office in 2019 and 2020 more than 900 times.
Game Warden Dale Owens made 101 wildlife, fishing and boating violation charges in 2019 and 2020 combined, according to DWR records.
“We are one law enforcement family in Patrick County. We have to help each other,” he added.
Smith and Maj. Garry Brown are working with the board of supervisors to try and find ways to cut costs and maintain operations at the same time.
“We are basically to the bone at this point,” Smith said, and recalled that public safety bore the brunt of cuts last year, with more than $400,000 cut from the sheriff’s office, paid and volunteer rescue squads and volunteer fire departments.
“The board has a really tough job, and I think they know that public safety can’t stand much more in cuts at this point,” Smith said.
In terms of efficiency, law enforcement, court security, E911 dispatch center, animal control, school security and jail operations are performed at a cost of $6 million, which is less than 11 percent of the entire county budget, according to county finance records.
Smith said the state funds approximately 43.9 percent of his budget, and the county funds about 56.1 percent.
“In terms of taxpayer dollars, the public needs to know if you pay $1,000 per year in county taxes, only 17-cents a day is going toward the services the sheriff’s office provides,” Smith said. “I think that is pretty efficient.”