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The incumbent faces two challengers for her position, which oversees a budget of $16.6 million.
Travis Akins (independent)
Tim Allen (Democrat)
Saturday, October 26, 2013
Roanoke voters will decide among three career law enforcement officers in November as two challengers attempt to oust the Roanoke sheriff from office.
Republican Sheriff Octavia Johnson has kept her job since 2006, despite a challenge made against her four years ago. In that race, she narrowly defeated Democrat Frank Garrett by 139 votes, or 0.7 percent.
Democrat Tim Allen and independent Travis Akins hope to see a different result this year. The two cite varying experience in police departments and jails and share many criticisms of Johnson’s administration.
The Roanoke Sheriff’s Office provides security for the city jail and houses the more than 620 inmates who stay there on an average day. The office is also responsible for security at the Roanoke City Courthouse, for transporting prisoners to and from regional jails and prisons, and for serving court papers throughout the city.
The sheriff oversees a budget of about $16.6 million in the current fiscal year. As of February the agency had 243 employees, of which 200 were sworn positions.
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Johnson said she’s particularly proud to have overseen her office’s recent accreditation by the Virginia Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission. Though the office has maintained national accreditations from previous administrations, Johnson said this certification is a first for her department.
The sheriff said she has updated technology in the agency, something she highlighted in her 2009 campaign as well. When she arrived in office in 2006, she said, courthouse cameras merely monitored activity and did not record it. Johnson said she changed that.
Johnson said she wants to implement DMV Connect at the jail, a state program that allows inmates to get photo ID for a fee with the hopes of easing their re-entry into society.
To help those same inmates when they leave the jail, Johnson said she started a workplace readiness program, where inmates learn job skills such as writing a resume and interviewing. She also hopes to start a program that would allow inmates who work in the jail’s kitchen to earn a certificate that they could show future employers.
In 2010 and 2011, Johnson was a member of a work group that advised Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Prisoner and Juvenile Offender Re-entry Council.
In 2009, one of her campaign goals was to start a Sheriff’s Office Citizens Academy, which is now entering its third year.
Johnson, who worked as a deputy in the jail for 25 years before retiring in 2004, was elected the first female and minority sheriff in Roanoke in 2005.
“I love my job,” she said recently in an interview at the sheriff’s office. “I love being a servant to the citizens of Roanoke. I’ve accomplished a lot, and I think there’s a lot more that we want to do. We want to finish what we started here.”
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Akins is the Roanoke Police Department’s crime prevention specialist, a role he stepped into several years ago when Officer Bryan Lawrence was severely injured while chasing a suspect. That job has him interacting with community groups often, working to stop bad things from happening before they become nuisances or worse.
Akins said it’s that mentality that would guide his office should he be elected.
“I think we all know that once someone is incarcerated for the first time they are thrown into a population of people that maybe he or she has not ever been exposed to,” Akins said. “A lot of times they’re exposed to that hardened criminal element — they get that school of hard knocks education — and that is not the best thing for these individuals.”
Akins said he would work to institute home electronic monitoring to reduce the number of inmates housed at the jail, something he said he had experience doing when he worked as a detention officer in Chesterfield County.
The alternative would be “for certain individuals, and only certain individuals” who are nonviolent first-time offenders, Akins said. He estimated it would affect 40 to 50 inmates a day.
If elected, Akins promised to reclassify the office’s public information office as an outreach division that would help inmates re-enter society more smoothly. He said he would use deputies at slow points during the courthouse schedule to supplement security at Roanoke schools.
He said he would look into providing deputies in the jail and courthouse with Tasers and other less-lethal means of force.
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Allen left a job as a major at the Western Virginia Regional Jail earlier this year to run for office. Before that, he’d worked as a lieutenant at the Roanoke jail.
He said he believes in “participatory leadership” and would empower his staff to grow by setting an example for them.
“Everybody can bring something to the table,” he said.
Allen wants to form a staff advisory council and would make sure that the jail’s public information officer — the office’s spokesperson — was not someone related to him.
The current spokeswoman is Patricia Johnson, Octavia Johnson’s sister.
Allen wants to make the jail more “user-friendly,” and, like Akins, said he would work to increase the number of inmate work crews being used.
He criticized Akins’ plan to use courthouse deputies in schools, even at times when traffic in the courthouse is light.
“He’s never worked in the courthouse,” Allen said. “He doesn’t understand that you cannot reduce staff in a courthouse and put them out on the street and give a female a Taser and let her handle the security in the building.”
Allen said he would increase deputy training, specifically that of the command staff in the courthouse.
Allen and Akins both said they would improve the care that inmates with mental health issues get at the jail, something Johnson said she already has done. She said just this year she doubled the amount of hours per week a psychiatrist is available, from four to eight.
“I find that a lot of the people with the mental health issues are people that abuse drugs and alcohol quite a bit, and they’re on medication and half of them don’t want to take their medication when they come here to the jail,” she said. “It would be nice if you had all the money that you could spend to get a psychiatrist in more, but the money’s not there.”
Akins and Allen also said morale was at an all-time low in the department and said there was little opportunity for criticism or suggestion, something Johnson vigorously denied.
“An operation this large, for us to maintain all the accreditations ... all the community involvement that we have, I think that goes to show that we all come together to get this done,” she said. “There’s always people within any organization that ... are not happy. There’s nothing that you can say or do to make them more happy.”
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