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Two other Southwest Virginia police chiefs were convicted before the officer in Marion.
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
The third Southwest Virginia police chief in four years to be convicted of a drug crime is scheduled for sentencing today.
The policeman, former Marion chief Michael Dean “Fireball” Roberts, will walk the path taken previously by counterparts in Damascus and Pennington Gap and may, like them, go to prison.
The drug abuse problem facing Southwest Virginia residents has again infiltrated the highest level of law enforcement.
How worried should the general public be?
Dana Schrad, who directs the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said there is no widespread problem or issue with police management in Virginia, which is home to 350 law enforcement agencies. But Schrad said that small police agencies face issues large agencies do not that contribute to the risk of a police officer breaking that law. The association tries to help resolve such issues, which are resource-related, by offering free and low-cost hiring assistance.
Small, rural police forces on average pay less and provide limited professional training development compared with large agencies; more often promote less experienced officers still early in their careers to supervisor or chief; and may have so few officers the chief must patrol the streets part of the time and not have sufficient time for agency management, leadership and administration, Schrad said. In addition, small agencies see fewer applicants and less competition for police jobs than large agencies and often can’t afford professional hiring, Schrad said.
Could it happen again?
Marion Mayor David Helms, who as mayor was by law Roberts’ boss, said it could.
Helms, in his 14th year as mayor in the town of 5,000 people, named these reasons why everything about Roberts looked OK even though it wasn’t: Roberts showed up for work when he was supposed to, including at night and on weekends. He didn’t abuse sick or vacation leave.
A former member of the Smyth County Board of Supervisors and chief since 2000, he led a force of about 20 officers. Subject to random drug testing, he had passed his latest test in September 2010, Helms said.
In fact, “Roberts was involved in the distribution of at least 7,331 hydrocodone pills, 365 grams of methamphetamine, and small amounts of cocaine and oxycodone,” some of which he obtained from the Marion Police Department evidence room, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia. Officials released a hidden camera video of a scene in a private home that showed Roberts snorting a crushed-up pill.
His drug activity, which authorities said occurred between 2006 and June 2013, is “just something that slipped by us,” Helms said. “Even other police in the area, they just can’t believe it that this happened, that it got by us.”
Two other Southwest Virginia communities also lost their police chiefs to drug prosecutions.
In May 2013, former Pennington Gap Police Chief William Young was sentenced to 108 months in federal prison for breaking into a pharmacy and distributing painkillers. In 2009, former Damascus Police Chief Tony Richardson, dubbed “a drug dealer with a badge” by a prosecutor, was sent to prison on drug distribution charges.
A state criminal justice official could not explain the three incidents.
“We share your quandary as to why these law enforcement officials have violated the public’s trust but can offer no insight as to why it occurred or how it can be prevented. These issues can best be addressed by the investigating authorities,” said Sam Hoffman, standards, policy and homeland security manager at the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.
So what’s the best insurance against a crooked police chief?
Rigorous adherence to standards and high accountability are the buzzwords for a police department run as a tight ship. This style of operating, considered by experts to be the best safeguard against the capacity of all human leaders to fail, can be confirmed with voluntary accreditation through a group such as the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies at a cost of thousands of dollars.
But going for accreditation consumes money and time, a price that may be too substantial for a small police force, Marion Town Manager Bill Rush said. The plan in Marion, at least for the time being, is to unilaterally employ what best practices it can without petitioning for that seal of approval. The town has received about 20 applications for its police chief opening, which will pay $45,000 to $65,000 a year depending on the candidate, Rush said.
The town’s tightened controls on police practices, which neither Helms nor Rush said they could explain in detail, will include that the police chief live in the town of Marion. Roberts lives in Saltville, about a half-hour away by vehicle. And the hiring process, which the town is so far attempting without outside assistance, doesn’t really end with the hiring. The new chief will start out on a sort of probation.
No accreditation is foolproof, either, cautioned Craig Hartley, deputy commission director.
“If there’s an intent to do destruction, to do something illegal, systems can be bypassed,” Hartley said. “No system prevents mistakes of the heart.”
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