Candidates running for public office usually make promises they fail to keep once their successful campaigns are complete, but Ohio County Sheriff Tom Howard seems different following his first six months in office.
Not only has he made good on his pledge to be accessible to Ohio County residents by attending functions and hosting question-and-answer sessions on local talk radio, but he’s also provided proof that his “kids first” initiative is a top priority by retaining a presence inside local schools despite his department’s ongoing battles with drug trafficking and all of the associated criminal activity.
“It’s truly all connected the way I see it,” said Howard, a former prevention resource officer at Triadelphia Middle School while serving more than two decades with the Wheeling Police Department. “I believe education and prevention play big roles with the drug issues because if we talk to the children now about the drugs and the effects they have, it just might help in the future because they will already know to stay away from the stuff.
“The kids are smarter than they are given credit for; they really are,” he said. “We know that from the D.A.R.E Program and the conversations that we have had with even the grade school kids. That’s how far-reaching the issue is, and when someone is addicted, they usually will do what they have to so they can get more of what it is they are abusing. That need often leads to more criminal activity like the breaking-and-entering incidents and the robberies.”
Howard, in fact, plans to increase that school presence with an influx in the amount of deputies inside the county’s public schools. One of his chief deputies, John Schultz, has applied for state and federal grants to fund the presence of prevention resource officers in elementary schools.
“I very much enjoyed my time as a prevention resource officer because of the mentoring involved with the students,” Howard said. “When you are in that position, you have the opportunity to work with the children constantly, and that means you build relationships with them. I have had some students come up to me five, six years later to talk about their memories and what they learned from our discussions.
“So many of those students still contact me to let me know how they are doing and where they’ve gone to college or how they are doing in high school, and that means a lot to me and to everyone who serves in those positions in our schools,” he continued. “That’s also why we participate now in as many outreach programs as we can during the summer months so that the county’s children can continue building the relationships with law enforcement. That goes a long way with the children.”
He’s been faced with replacing aging cruisers for his deputies as well as updating the office’s technology in preparation for a new website that will launch in the near future, but Howard’s biggest challenge by far during his first six month has involved the opioid epidemic that has crippled communities across the nation. All the deputies in Ohio County carry with them Narcan, the antidote for opioid overdose, but not always do they arrive in time.
In the past two weeks, the sheriff reported, deputies have responded to three overdoses in three different areas of Ohio County.
“The issues with the drug abuse and the drug trafficking has been a huge challenge for us since I took office in January, and unfortunately I think it will be a problem we’ll have to contend with for a long time,” Howard said. “That’s why we have to keep going at it, and the people of this county should know I will never give up on it. It’s exactly why we will soon add two more K-9 units to the department.
“Our young people are our greatest resource, and that’s where our work has to start so they know the facts and the consequences because it’s not a matter of ‘if they encounter it’; it’s ‘when’ because they will,” he said. “This issue is affecting all age groups and doesn’t have any boundaries whatsoever. This stuff just grabs ahold of people, and it will not let go unless the addictive individual does what they have to do to get the help they need.”
More than ever, though, Howard has seen the public in Ohio County willing to help by providing eyewitness accounts of the criminal activity they have seen. Those calls combined with the teamwork within the office allow him to believe the office is on a positive track.
“We have a great bunch of deputies, and we all work very well with each other because it’s about protecting the people of the county,” Howard said. “The morale is good because the guys are happy, and they love what they get to do for a living. If they didn’t love it, they wouldn’t be in this line of work.
“And the citizens are also filling the role we’d hoped they would fill because we get a lot of phone calls from our residents, and they are offering us a lot of information about the concerns they have,” he said. “The reaction from the public has been outstanding, and they are helping us. That’s what we want, and that’s what we need.”
Fighting crime in Ohio County is only half of Howard’s mandated responsibilities; collecting property taxes represents the rest of the job description.
“And we are very lucky here in Ohio County because of the employees we have in our tax office. They do a great job, and they are very helpful because several of them have worked for many years,” the sheriff said. “There have been occasions when I have answered questions concerning the tax office, and those who have asked have been very appreciative that I reached out to them to provide answers.
“I doubt many people realize how much work the folks in the tax office do on a daily basis because most people only see them when they are there paying their taxes,” Howard said. “Those ladies deal with the public, and sometimes folks are not happy when they walk in there, but from what I have witnessed they usually walk out satisfied with the answers they’ve received.”
Howard consistently insists to Ohio County residents that he enjoys conversing with his constituents even if the discussions involve nothing about taxes or crime. That’s because he, Shultz, Chief Deputy Drage Flick, and the other 30-plus deputies firmly believe a healthy relationship with the residents they serve and protect leads to an improved quality of life for all involved.
“I really believe that the public needs to know what’s going on, so that’s why we are as transparent as possible and talking about what we can talk about,” Howard explained. “There are cases that we can’t talk about until investigations are completed, and I believe most people understand that. But yes, we are very accessible because I’m a big believer that the public needs to know what they want to know.
“The citizens of Ohio County can ask me any questions they want to ask, and if I can supply answers that’s exactly what I’ll do,” he said. “Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not afraid to talk and discuss the issues with our residents. That’s one of my favorite things to do because everyone learns along the way. That’s how problems get solved and how issued are resolved.”
(Photos supplied by Ohio County Sheriff Tom Howard)