Health & Safety

Left: New App for locals. Right: Sheriff Mike Henley

Here to Serve: Avery County Sheriff’s Office

By Edwin Ansel

It’s 2 a.m.

I’m in Elk Park, just getting home from my weekly trip to Idaho. I drive a truck for Jack Hicks, Inc., bringing frozen french fries back East. If you enjoy french fries, let me just say this: “You’re welcome!”

I’m loading my gear into the trunk of my sedan when a car swerves into the parking lot. It’s coming straight towards me. And keeps coming straight on. Did I mention that it’s 2 a.m.? But it has a light bar on the roof; it’s an officer.

I step away from the car and act innocent. I’m sure I haven’t done anything, pretty sure, but I am the target of the officer’s attention, which is not nothing. The glossy cruiser pulls up. It’s a sheriff’s deputy. The window is already down and a youngish man leans forward. And smiles.

“You alright? Do you need a tow or something?”

That vaguely guilty feeling I’d had vanishes. His voice was cheerful. He wasn’t trolling, he was sincerely offering to help. He was looking out for me. Approaching a stranger at 2 a.m. strikes me as a risky move. But he did it anyway. I assured him that all was well. Turning back to my car I noted that the doors were open, and the trunk was open; it did look like maybe I had a flat tire. It’s nice that people can look out for each other like this.

Was this happy encounter a bit of luck? Or, the bigger question, is it Standard Operating Procedure at the Avery County Sheriff’s Office? I reached out to Sheriff Mike Henley for answers. First, let me note that the Sheriff has plenty to do, but he devoted a full morning to our conversation, except for a few minutes when he was on the phone quarterbacking the search for an intoxicated driver who was an immediate threat to public safety.

The answer to my big question is a big, simple “yes.” Sheriff Henley has a vision for the Office, and it boils down to this: as sheriff he undertakes “to protect and to serve,” and in Avery the emphasis is on service. The deputy who was looking out for me was following his training and departmental policy.

“Generally speaking, Avery County is a very safe place,” says Sheriff Henley. And so he is able to allocate resources to service. The emphasis on service arises in part from the idea that any encounter a citizen has with an officer will overshadow anything else that happens that day. Sheriff Henley wants that encounter to be a positive one for a citizen, no matter which side of the law they’re on.

His vision of service takes several concrete forms. The officers are organized into teams, including a “community impact team.” Officers are empowered to use their good sense to supplement the letter of the law to solve problems. To look out for people. To provide guidance, perhaps, and not just citations. And, especially, the officers are expected to treat every person with courtesy and dignity, again, no matter which side of the law they’re on. More on this later…

Under Sheriff Henley, Avery is distinguished for having officers assigned to Victim Services. Crime can leave people injured and destitute, clearly. State law provides that victims have rights, including the right to seek compensation for loss. Avery meets the state requirements and more, and by having a person assigned to Victim Services helps save these people who need help from falling through the cracks. Avery is distinguished also for having trained negotiators who may, with their skills, avoid violent confrontations that create victims.

Part of service is outreach. “We can’t be everywhere,” says Sheriff Henley, “we need you to be our eyes and ears.” The Office now has a cell phone app that includes a tip line. In short, if you see something, say something. Suspicious activity in your neighborhood? Submit a tip. Get a picture of a suspicious person or vehicle? Submit that. Not ready to get personally involved? You don’t have to submit your name. And it’s free! Go to your app store and search for “Avery County Sheriff” and download (or simply scan the QR code provided above).

Naturally, money has an impact on Sheriff Henley’s vision. Avery is not large, and neither is its budget. In his words, “We’re resource-short.” But he wants both to protect and to serve. Two tasks. And he can’t do both things well simply by taking a small budget and spreading it thinly. What to do? Find money-multipliers, ways to get two for the price of one.

For example, I asked the Sheriff what is his most important accomplishment so far. “That’s easy,” he said, “we raised the pay scale for our officers.” Better pay buys better talent. Talented officers achieve better results. The multiplier is this, and it’s excellent: Sheriff Henley recruits officers who have retired from other branches of law enforcement and from other counties. These officers bring decades of experience, a resource that is priceless, for a pay package that Avery County can afford. But, retired? Really? I needed clarification. “Wait,” I said, “these are guys who could be out fishing, and you convinced them to get back in the game?” He nodded.

The Sheriff is also proud of the latest-generation body cameras he’s acquired. Here’s the multiplier: In the event of a dispute, or heaven forbid, a tragedy, the testimony of these cameras can protect the citizens, and the officers and also the county. That’s a three-for-one. Similarly, the Sheriff has acquired a unique form of legal service. He has on call an experienced lawyer who can be summoned to the scene of an active conflict involving the Sheriff’s Office, giving counsel and also developing evidence while it’s fresh, helping protect the officers and the county from the expense and other impacts of litigation. A form of insurance that has got to help folks sleep at night.

Sheriff Henley’s skill at multiplying the impact of his budget has earned him a champion on the County Commission. “I give him everything I can,” says Commissioner Robert Burleson. “Like that pay raise, we had to push and push to get that through.”

There is plenty more to report. The Sheriff’s Office has a K-9 unit, a drone team, and a “special response team” (think SWAT). They have a grant writer, another multiplier, who brings in extra money, much of which is used to train officers for things such as dog handling, special response skills, and negotiation. But it’s the Sheriff’s commitment to service that got me. And I saw the real-world impact of his vision after we spoke.

I spent the afternoon riding with Sgt. Scott Bray. Once again, there is so much to report, but let’s focus. Sgt. Bray and other deputies were looking for a man who was wanted in another county, and who was rumored to have fled to Avery. Word came down that he’d been located at a certain address. When Sgt. Bray and I arrived, there were several officers already there, and Sgt. Bray joined them. There were people everywhere. Officers were going in and out of the house, the barn, the woods. The residents were standing in the yard, at the door, at the window. The officers were businesslike, but low-key. In particular, I noticed deputies standing around talking to several men. Casual. Relaxed. Except for the uniforms it looked like neighbors chatting about the weather.

And then Sgt. Bray was walking back to the cruiser with a young fellow at his side. Just walking, low-key. Sgt. Bray brought the young man up to the cruiser and had him stand there, unrestrained, while Bray went to consult with another officer. A woman came from the house with cigarettes, and the young man lit up. Bray came back, and the young man asked if he could finish his cigarette. Bray allowed it. I had no idea you could make a single Marlboro last that long.

Ultimately it was time to go. Sgt. Bray brought the young man to the back door and, using the same calm, quiet voice he had used with me all afternoon, he seated the fellow and asked him to put out his hands, and I heard the clink of the handcuffs. No drama. It dawned on me that Bray sounded like a doctor talking to his patient.

Other officers nearby were talking to each other, trying to get a handle on the names and relationships of the folks they’d been dealing with. The young fellow piped up suddenly with something like, “Naw, that’s her cousin!” In other words, he was helping. Yes, being helpful, not sullen, despite having just been cuffed. Looking back, I think I get it. This fellow had caused a lot of trouble to a lot of people, but Sgt. Bray handled him with courtesy and even kindness, considering. Bray set the tone for the encounter, showed the fellow how to behave. The fellow responded, instinctively, by rising to the occasion. Sgt. Bray’s measured response to, and careful handling of, the encounter also is part of what it means “to serve.”

In the end, we are all served. It was a wonderful thing to see.

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