Sheriff’s race an unusual one

In the two years since Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher told the Washington Post that marijuana enforcement was important, the nation’s opioid epidemic has assumed center stage.

While Fletcher’s attitude toward marijuana hasn’t changed–it’s still a “stepping stone” to other drug abuse and it’s still part of his enforcement game plan–his department’s priorities have.

“Right now, I’m concerned and worried about families of those who are dying,” he said in a recent interview. “Addiction goes long and deep. It has affected all facets of our society.”

Fletcher said the increase in overdoses, and deaths from overdoses, has put law enforcement on the front lines of the heroin crisis–so much so that the sheriff’s department now treats those deaths as potential homicides.

He has assigned two deputies to such cases and given them extra training. “I look at drug overdoses as a possible homicide. Somebody may have helped them get to that point by delivering the substance or even injecting the substance,” he said. “We need to not just look at an overdose and walk away from it; we need to take it as far as we can, to go after the responsible party.”

Fletcher, 64, of Weirton, is running for re-election at a time when the drug problem requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, he said, which is why his department cooperates with the treatment community, doctors, families of addicts and other law enforcement agencies.

“As long as people are still dying, how can you say that we’re adequately addressing it? But that’s national. It’s not a problem just located in Hancock County,” he said. “We’re just a small cog in this problem, and we’re working as hard as we can to alleviate it.”

A former Weirton police officer and police chief, Fletcher, a Democrat, was elected sheriff in 2012 and is facing a challenge from one of his retired lieutenants in what is turning out to be an unusual race.

Republican Mark Cowden was convicted on Oct. 17 of using excessive force on an arrestee in the Hancock County Courthouse lobby in January 2015. The jury acquitted him of a second charge of obstruction of justice (falsification of documents).

Cowden, 51, of Weirton, maintained during the trial that the prosecution was politically-motivated and intended to knock him out of the race for sheriff. His name remains on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Although he agreed to an interview for this story prior to the trial, Cowden has not returned phone calls or emails seeking comment. But in previous remarks to supporters, Cowden has criticized Fletcher for, among other things, letting deputy morale drop to an all-time low.

Fletcher said he doesn’t believe morale is low. “All I see is nothing but positive,” he said. “I see a very fine department working very hard and putting in a lot of extra time and putting in volunteer overtime. You don’t get that when morale is low.”

Fletcher said he measures morale by the number of officer-initiated interactions with the public, the pace and thoroughness of investigations, and the attitude of deputies when they come off the road.

What’s more, he said his job is not to make everybody happy. “My job is to help you do a better job for the citizens of Hancock County,” he said.

On that score, Fletcher said he has boosted training not only for deputies but also for courthouse bailiffs, tax deputies and the Prevention Resource Officers assigned to the schools.

Fletcher said deputies have received new handguns, new body armor and new body cameras during his tenure as sheriff.

Although he is not a big proponent of the 12-hour shift, he believes the schedule change, instituted in September 2015, has improved morale.

“It gives officers more time off,” he said. “I just need to make sure the county’s covered 24/7 and that we’re putting four to five officers out on every shift.”

The sheriff’s department has 29 sworn officers, including four lieutenants, six sergeants and two detectives.