Law of the land series: the Shenandoah County sheriff
This year, the top criminal justice positions of every county in Virginia are on the ballot – prosecutors and sheriffs. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reviewed several of those races in our broadcast region, and spoke with incumbents and challengers. This is the first report in a five-part series.
Commonwealth's Attorneys and sheriffs have immense influence over the landscape of a county's legal system. Where are resources focused? What crimes and investigations are prioritized? How are cases tried? What sentences are sought?
Depending on where you live, those answers will differ. There will also be a different number of hands that have shaped those answers over the years, depending on how competitive those elections have been. In each of the next five reports, I hone in on a different race in the region. Some of them are contested from multiple angles; others haven't been challenged in two decades. But each of them illustrates how the people we elect to these roles shape our communities.
We'll start with Sheriff Tim Carter –
TIM CARTER: Shenandoah County sheriff.
The county of 44,000 residents sits next to the border with West Virginia, south of Winchester. Carter beat four opponents when he was first elected in 2003, and has run unopposed ever since. He grew up in Southside Virginia, where his father was the chief of police in the small town of Kenbridge. He came to Shenandoah as the chief deputy under the previous sheriff.
Some of the biggest changes he's seen throughout his career have been in technology.
CARTER: Well, when I first started law enforcement, there were no cell phones. There were no cameras on cars. There were no body cameras. … Now, there's this expectation that you have all of that, and not only that you have all of that, that it's instantaneously accessed.
He's currently working to implement a system that coordinates the car and body camera footage of a scene, and apps to track call developments in real time.
CARTER: We have school resource officers here in the county. You didn't hear those things 30, 35 years ago. … Now, because of school violence and school shootings … communities all over the country have started getting into that more. We have an SRO, school resource officer in each school, so we're very fortunate there. But then you have to look at … there are some agencies, in my opinion, that I think they've maybe gone down the wrong path. … In other words, we're not using our school resource officer program here as a way to incarcerate young people.
Carter said the local demand for SROs skyrocketed in 2012. Just days after the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, a man was arrested at an elementary school in Strasburg which is also named Sandy Hook. As The Northern Virginia Daily reported, the 33-year-old entered the building with a two-by-four inscribed with the words, "high powered rifle." The principal and an SRO detained him before other officers arrived.
Another pressing public safety issue is drugs.
CARTER: In our particular county, we're seeing an influx right now of fentanyl. Over the course of time, it's been marijuana, meth, crystal meth, homemade meth, pills, oxycodone pills and that kind of thing. Now, fentanyl is coming into play. Meth is still here.
The Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office is part of a regional drug and gang task force that also includes Winchester and the counties of Clarke, Frederick, and Page. According to their last annual report, in 2022 they seized 15 pounds of meth, with a street value of $654,000. By weight, that's nearly twice as much crack cocaine as they collected, two and a half times the amount of fentanyl, and around five times as much powder cocaine or heroin.
Data from the Virginia Department of Health shows that in 2021, there were nine fatal overdoses in Shenandoah County. From 2017 to 2021, the county's overdose death rate dipped above and then below the state average. However, since the most recent data available is nearly two years old, we don't yet know how a current inflow of fentanyl might affect those outcomes.
A new legal response to the issue, however, is a drug treatment court that was started this year. It's run by the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, which also operates drug courts in Winchester, Clarke, and Frederick counties.
Carter said a challenge, though, is the limited availability of services for both substance use and mental health treatment. And he's worried about how responding to people in mental health crises is affecting his deputies.
CARTER: Think about how many calls you had this week where someone called you and said, "hey, they're going to commit suicide," and they want your help. That happens here every week. And it happens here, usually about two times a week. … Not only is it difficult to try to find the services, it's difficult on the staff member dealing with that kind of call. … I guess in the last 18 months I think it's been two or three incidents where we've had people shoot at deputies with high-powered rifles. … My point is, what is that doing from a mental health perspective to the staff member?
One approach Carter has taken to try and prevent crises from escalating in the first place is creating four positions called "community services deputies." The project is informed by the statewide Marcus Alert framework, which aims to improve the behavioral health response to people in crisis. These are still certified law enforcement positions, but they receive extra training in behavioral health, mental health, and substance use. He's filled three of the four openings so far.
CARTER: They can try to develop relationships with people that have behavioral health and mental health issues prior to there being an intersection between a crisis they're having and law enforcement arriving.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Carter if he's given any thought to retirement, after two decades as the sheriff. He said no – he's still focused forward.