Being Sheriff in Virginia’s least populous county means wearing a lot of different hats – and there’s no telling how any given day might go. As part of an occasional WMRA series on local jails and law enforcement, Andrew Jenner spent a day with Sheriff David Neil, and filed this report.
[School bell rings]
Sheriff Neil’s mornings often begin at school, where he rambles the halls, chats and checks in.
With a population of about 2,200, Highland County is the smallest in Virginia. Its entire public school system fits in a small building complex in Monterey. Because there’s no school resource officer, Neil or one of his deputies stops in at the start and finish of every school day – as long as something more pressing doesn’t come up.
DAVID NEIL: It’s good just to see the smiles on the little ones.
There are personal perks to this part of the job. Neil’s daughter, son-in-law and wife all work here, and for six Highland Elementary students, Sheriff Neil is also Grandpa Neil.
NEIL: So it’s a little more pleasure for me to walk from class to class – I get to see how my grandkids are doing every morning, too.
Neil graduated from this same high school in 1976. After 18 years working for the phone company, he became a Highland County sheriff’s deputy. He was elected sheriff in 2015.
NEIL: I like helping people, and I look at our job as more helping people than hurting people or trying to put people in jail. We try to reform people and help people any way we can.
In such a small community, the job has a unique rhythm.
NEIL: Over here, I feel lucky that we’ve got more time to go out and spend with the public just on routine patrols and keeping everybody safe in their homes.
With just six deputies, he does a little bit of everything:
NEIL: From homicides down to chasing cattle out of the road.
And of course, the loathsome paperwork that piles up no matter how fast he shuffles through it. Neil also picks up the mail, keeps bills paid and fills in as the handyman.
NEIL: I don’t think your larger sheriffs, you’ll see ‘em with a paintbrush in their hand painting inside their office and stuff, but I do that here when I can.
Highland County is not awash in tax revenue, and Neil can’t pay his deputies or dispatchers much. Turnover is a major challenge, and since he’s been sheriff, Neil has collected tens of thousands of dollars in private donations to buy new guns, a communication trailer and an off-road vehicle.
NEIL: I’m very reluctant to go to our supervisors and ask for money. It’s just a struggle in a small county to get revenues to work with.
But no matter how big or small a community is, things change fast in law enforcement. A call comes into the dispatch center. Structure fire.
[Engine revving – alarms]
In seconds, Neil’s out the back door and in his truck screaming east. He knows exactly where he’s headed, and he’s worried. The old man who lives there is in poor health. No one’s sure if he got out.
When you know practically everyone in a community, emergency response often hits close to home.
NEIL: That’s what makes in a tough in a small town, too. You know, something bad goes on, you feel for everybody because I know all these people.
[Neil's truck pulls up to scene]
WOMAN: Do you have anything to get into the house with? We can’t even get in there.
NEIL: Are they out of there?
WOMAN: We don’t know if anybody’s even in there. We can’t get in.
Neil throws it in park and runs toward the smoldering house. He tries opening the front door, but is driven back by the choking smoke.
[Fire trucks arriving]
As firefighters arrive and scramble into action, Neil helps them drag a hose behind the house.
[Hoses spraying vinyl siding]
Word eventually trickles back that the man who lives here is accounted for elsewhere. The house looks like a total loss, but the on-scene anxiety ratchets down a bit. Neil’s one of the last to leave. On his way back to the office, he waves to a VDOT guy who’d been helping direct traffic. He’s Neil’s son.
Neil gets back to the office in Monterey in time for a taco bowl lunch at High’s Restaurant. So long as another emergency doesn’t break out, he’ll spend much of the afternoon battling his paperwork problem. As he begins the slog, I head out on patrol with Deputy Sheriff Bob Kelly.
BOB KELLY: Every 10 days to seven days, I try to travel over every road in the county, keep tabs on what’s going on. Check for speeders, traffic violations…
[Speed radar pinging]
KELLY: He’s speeding. It’s 35 mile an hour, and he’s running 47. Eh, I’ll let that one go.
About two hours later, we’ve passed no more than 20 cars – normal for a weekday afternoon this time of year. No tickets today. Back at the office, Neil’s still at his desk.
NEIL: I’ve been running receipts back and forth to the county administrator and getting some bills, try to get them paid up today. You can see my desk is still full of paperwork.
He’s hoping to be out of here in another hour or so to make it to tonight’s Little League games.
NEIL: My grandkids are playing ball this evening. It’s usually around 5,6, somewhere, sometimes 8, 9, before I get out of here. But on evenings like this when I’ve got ball games, I like to support the kids in Little League, so I go try to encourage them, attend their games.
All in all, it’s been a typical day with the same old dose of the unexpected. As per usual, there’s no telling what tomorrow will bring – though if it’s slow in Highland County, Sheriff Neil can always count on paperwork.