JEFFERSON-Less than a month on the job and Terry Buchanan is already developing the trademark thick skin every Sheriff needs to survive the post.
Buchanan was appointed and sworn in by the Ashe County Board of Commissioners on Jan. 17, over longtime former Ashe County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Bucky Absher.
Critics attacked the move, a 3-2 split decision, on social media and on the editorial page of The Jefferson Post, scouring everything from Buchanan’s work history to the motivations of the board of commissioners.
Buchanan, though, took it all in stride and says he’s even more excited about taking on the role now than he was the day he was sworn into office.
“The problem is a lot of people hide behind the screen on social media,” Buchanan said. “So I don’t read that stuff. I have people that relay to me what’s said, but I don’t read it. I would, however, invite everybody in here to talk to me and find out what I’m about. I’d speak to all of them.”
Right now, Buchanan said he’s “all about” righting a Sheriff’s office he believes badly needed a major overhaul in training and culture. Consider it cleaning house and sorting through a mess, he said.
Step one has been to address personnel issues. With the exception of one jail employee, Buchanan said he’s fired no one though he has seen several high profile resignations, including those of Absher, longtime volunteer detective and Ashe County Board of Commissioners Chairman William Sands and former Chief Jailer Sharon Price.
Other officers, he said, have been shuffled and re-assigned within the department and he’s brought in a new chief Deputy in Rick Clayton, a law officer with a long career in the Durham metro area.
“Anytime you’re in a transition like this, you can’t leave the same management team in place,” Buchanan said. “You’ve got to change positions and put another team in place and I’ve largely done that from within.”
He said he’s also made sure his officers are clear regarding their new responsibilities and mutual aid agreements. Buchanan singled out the ACSO’s cooperation with other agencies in the past, like the West Jefferson Police Department, as something that had to improve after he took office.
He’s broken Ashe County’s patrol districts into halves or quarters, depending on the number of deputies available on any given shift. The idea is to assign his road officers a smaller segment of the county’s more than 400-miles of black top to ensure better coverage in far flung communities like Grassy Creek or Todd.
He’s also split the shifts of his detectives – before he said the entire division generally only worked 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. throughout the business week – to expand the hours they’re available Monday through Friday. That’s designed to get investigators to crime scenes quicker so patrol officers can get back on the road.
“Now detectives are going straight to the scene, which should help them process things quicker and free up the patrol officers to get back on the road,” Buchanan said.
Calling in the SBI
But Buchanan said his biggest headache has been outlining a plan to put standard operating procedures in place which he said were completely absent upon his arrival.
“Nobody was really directing them or working through SOPs or procedures,” Buchanan said. “Leadership was lacking. That’s why I’m bringing in monthly and yearly knowledge tests to make sure everybody knows what they’re supposed to be doing and why. They simply didn’t have that before.”
Buchanan said he’s bringing in outside help to make sure he has a solid grasp of any internal deficiencies hidden inside the office. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation has been called in to audit the ACSO’s evidence and jail processes, for instance. He estimates the ACSO should have those audit results back within four months.
“I’ve asked the SBI for help in doing a full audit,” Buchanan said. “The jail has been a disaster.”
When asked for examples of the jail’s shortcomings, Buchanan said at least three trustees were given too much leeway and too little supervision by jail staff.
“That’s a major violation and that cannot happen,” he said.
‘Not above the law just because we have a badge a gun’
Buchanan said the ACSO must adapt the way it trains its officers to deal with complex situations while on patrol. Road officers must have confidence they can deal with dangerous situations, he said, but they also cannot forget their purpose is to serve Ashe County’s citizens.
“It comes back to ‘protect and serve,” Buchanan said. “We’re not above the law just because we have a badge and a gun. If I escalate a situation, shame on me. My officers won’t go out and escalate a situation and expect me to back them.”
That’s why proper training along the entire “force continuum,” is a must, he said. Broken down, that simply means officers must be trained to use the appropriate level of force – and no more than necessary – in any given situation, Buchanan said.
Clearing the air
By and large, Buchanan said the internal feedback from officers has given him confidence to move forward with his reforms. He believes communication between officers and command staff was lacking in the past.
Still, he said he holds no grudges against the men and women who voiced their support for Absher prior to the board of commissioners vote last month.
“In my opinion, what they did for Bucky was the right thing to do,” Buchanan said. “They were showing support for their guy, and honestly I’d be hurt if they didn’t do it for me in that same situation.”
And he said he’s not paying attention to the online rumor mill.
He points to framed Army documents on his office wall as he said his military service record has been attacked online, and also addressed the idea that he recorded conversations with ACSO staff never happened.
“It was a flat out lie,” Buchanan said. “There was no such thing. But I’m not going to get into a tit-for-tat with some coward hiding behind a keyboard. Anybody with questions – come see me. This is their house, not mine. The people own this place and the citizens are going to hear exactly what I hear.”
You can follow Buchanan on Twitter @sheriffbuchanan.
Reach Adam Orr at 336-846-7164.