Interim Athens County Sheriff Speaks About Job, Changes In Office

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Since taking over as sheriff on March 27, Rodney Smith has been busy and regardless of what happens as a result of a criminal case against Sheriff Patrick Kelly, Smith said he’s giving his all to the job.

Friday, Smith talked with The Messenger about his first month in office and some of the changes being made, most notably the potential joining of a major crimes task force with neighboring counties.

“The transition was a lot smoother than I anticipated. The majority of the employees here just realized they work for the citizens of Athens County and wanted to get back to work, wanted to do what’s best for the citizens,” Smith said.

Smith retired from the sheriff’s office as a lieutenant in July after 26 years in law enforcement. He said that at the time, he didn’t feel being sheriff was in his future.

“No, actually when I retired a lot of people asked me if I had any visions (of) being sheriff and I thought about it and thought probably not,” he said.

Smith was in the process of applying to become a reserve officer for the Athens Police Department when the news broke that Kelly had been indicted on 25 criminal charges and was suspended from office. That opened the door for Smith to contemplate putting his name in to be interim sheriff.

“I gave it a lot of thought with my ambitions of community policing, joining forces with Ohio University police, Athens Police Department and the major crimes task force … I thought we could do a good job on eradicating drugs and try to put the dealers out of business in Athens County,” Smith said.

“When I came in, I had an open mind. I just wanted to see the operation, how it went. We made some subtle changes but overall, I think a lot of the people, the command staff, we kept as they were and they’re all working for a common goal,” he added.

The Messenger previously reported that Smith reversed the decision by Kelly to remove Jim Heater as head of the Narcotics Enforcement Team and replace him with Jon Arnold.

Speak of NET, prior to its creation by Kelly, the sheriff’s office was involved in a major crimes task force with other counties. Kelly then severed Athens County’s involvement with the task force.

Smith said he is keeping NET intact but has also already expanded the narcotics task force to include partnerships with Athens Police Department and Ohio University Police Department. He said he and the police chiefs have met with the Fairfield-Hocking Major Crimes Task Force and that, if all goes right, Athens County could join the force after a meeting on Wednesday.

“All of the officers are very good. Once we started working together and combining our resources, we’re even better,” Smith said. “Once we get the resources of the major crimes task force, I think we’re going to be even stronger.”

In touting the benefits of a major crimes task force, Smith said, “The DEA estimates around 85 percent of all property crimes and violent crimes lead back to drugs and I believe that. With the task force, we’re going to go after the property crimes as well. They have a lot of techniques that we don’t want to advertise too much but it’s very effective. In Fairfield County and Hocking County, they use these and their property crimes went down 66 percent.”

“My goal right now is to truly go after the dealers and cut off the supplies,” Smith added. “I’m also 100 percent in favor of treating the addicts. I think a lot of times it’s a revolving door. These addicts get in trouble and they have dealers pay them a significant amount of money to run the drugs and they get arrested. If we can treat them, that takes one more person out of the equation.”

Other changes Smith has instituted include restructuring the cruiser fleet, putting the sheriff’s ride on the streets as a full police cruiser and rotating other vehicles so that “we put the best cruisers possible on the road.” Smith mentioned that Deputy Matt May still works as a reserve officer with the canine unit and that John Kulchar is still on track to acquire a new canine for the office.

Prior to his appointment by first the Athens County Commissioners and then the Athens County Democratic Party Central Committee, Smith spent his five months of retirement with his family, riding motorcycles with is 16-year-old son. Throwing his name in for sheriff was a decision he made jointly with is family.

Given the unique situation in which Smith became sheriff, it is uncertain what lies ahead for Smith’s term. Kelly is scheduled to be tried on the charges on Sept. 29. If found innocent, Kelly would regain the office.

When asked about this uncertainty, Smith responded, “I work for the citizens of Athens County. Every day, I show up for work and I’m going to give 100 percent and do what I think is best for the citizens, for their well-being and the deputies for their safety and well-being. If I’m here for a day or six months or six years, I’m going to give 100 percent.”

Smith added that if he remains in office, he plans to run for sheriff when Kelly’s term ends.

“If things end in October, I hope to have built a pretty good resume and if they don’t, I have a longer term plan to be here six years,” he said. “No matter how long I’m here, I’ll give the people I work for 100 percent. I’ll make the best decisions I can based on the information I have at the time.”