NEW CUMBERLAND - Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher admits it "sounds strange," but he's having fun being sheriff.
"I enjoy what I do," Fletcher said in an interview in which he reflected on his first six months in office.
Since taking office Jan. 1, Fletcher, 60, of Weirton, said he has worked hard to engender good will for his department, increase patrols in unincorporated areas, boost drug enforcement and keep his deputies trained and outfitted with the best equipment.
LOOKING BACK — Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher at his desk, cluttered with, among other things, “thank you” notes. -- Stephen Huba
Fletcher said the job is not dissimilar from being Weirton police chief, which he was from 1998-2002, but that it encompasses more territory and more responsibilities.
"It's been a challenge learning the new parts of the job," he said.
In the past six months, Fletcher's department has dealt with a bank robbery, a major multi-agency drug bust, a string of burglaries, an arson trailer fire and, most recently, flooding that required the rescue of several people.
Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher has made numerous requests of Hancock County commissioners since taking office Jan. 1. They include:
July 18 - Adding two members to the Hancock County Sheriff's Reserves;
June 19 - Purchasing equipment and weapons for the Special Response Team ($5,800);
June 6 - Purchasing computer systems and a four-channel DVR for the interview room ($6,600);
May 16 - Hiring Dante Lamont Jeter as a deputy (to fill a vacancy);
May 16 - Applying for a matching grant to purchase bulletproof vests;
May 16 - Applying for a matching grant to hire three officers for Hancock County elementary schools;
May 16 - Purchasing a 2013 Dodge Grand Caravan ($20,595) with grant money for the Drug Task Force;
May 2 - Purchasing ammunition for training ($4,500);
May 2 - Purchasing a gun sight, LED foregrip light and replacement batteries ($1,250);
March 28 - Adding three members to the sheriff's reserves; and
Jan. 24 - Purchasing six new cruisers ($152,698).
Source: Hancock County commissioners' meeting agendas and minutes.
As sheriff, Fletcher is responsible not only for 26 sworn officers and 25 reserve officers but also for a process server, a jail administrator and five tax office personnel. On most days, Fletcher is a lawman and a politician, seeking to elicit the cooperation of Hancock County commissioners, courthouse personnel and his own ranking officers.
Fletcher said he's sought to improve morale and training in the department while also reaching out to community leaders, businessmen and educators. It's a balancing act that has kept him on his toes, he said.
"I've been busy," he said.
Most recently, Fletcher said he was instrumental in settling a five-year-old, interdepartmental lawsuit involving a deputy who said he was unfairly passed over for promotion to sergeant. The deputy, Dezso Polgar, recently was promoted to sergeant, bringing the department's complement of sergeants to six.
The settlement comes at a time when Fletcher is working with the Hancock County Civil Service Commission to restructure the department's rank system. Fletcher said he wants to introduce the rank of lieutenant and give his sergeants the opportunity to test for the position.
Having four lieutenants - one for each crew - would improve the chain of command and oversight of each shift, he said.
"Structural hierarchy is how you get things done," he said.
Fletcher said he plans to meet with the civil service commission soon to schedule a testing date.
Restructuring also will involve reassigning the two deputies who currently work as court bailiffs and putting them back on the road, he said. To do that, Fletcher wants to create a civilian division in which retired law enforcement officers are enlisted to work as bailiffs and courthouse security officers.
The sheriff's department will provide security for the Hancock County Courthouse once the front entrance is redesigned and metal detectors are installed later this year, he said.
"We must be the last courthouse in West Virginia to go through this," Fletcher said, noting that he already has met with some interested retired officers.
"They're not that old that they can't continue to work," he said.
Fletcher also wants to increase the size of his detective division from one - Detective Matthew Harvey - to three.
"I've got to boost that to get better protection and more complete investigations," he said.
Fletcher said the department also is preparing to institute zone patrols and to launch a website that will enable the public, through a "Tip 411" feature, to make anonymous tips via a computer or smartphone application.
Reflecting on the past six months, Fletcher said, "I've got a lot done."
Fletcher said his accomplishments include:
Conducting three townhall-style meetings in Newell and Lawrenceville;
Opening the lines of communication between ranking officers and administrative staff and involving them in the decision-making process;
Re-establishing the Field Training Officer program to improve on-the-job training for new deputies;
Establishing an inspection and maintenance program for the department's fleet of vehicles;
Delegating authority to the sheriff's reserves to establish a lifesaver project and a community watch program, which is anticipated to go countywide; and
Improving communication lines between the sheriff's department and other law enforcement agencies.
(Huba can be contacted at email@example.com)