JEFFERSON — In the run-up to the 2018 elections, then-candidate B. Phil Howell frequently spoke about improving every aspect of the Ashe County Sheriff's Office. Since Howell and Chief Deputy Danny Houck took office in December 2018, they've stressed changes big and small. They said they've frequently just asked officers and employees in every department what needed changes and what things could be done, taking them into account every step of the way.
"I think mine and (Houck's) motivation is to try to take care of this office as quick as we can. Just today, we got our first evidence refrigerator. As simple and as cheap as it was, we've never had one," Howell said. "Things like that have been sitting stagnate and should have been done years ago but hadn't."
While many changes made seem can straightforward, Houck said anything they do can take months to get done due to their budget.
The Ashe County Detention Center
Ashe County's jail was one of the first things under the microscope. Captain and Chief Jailer Linda Carrow said there's been many good changes to the operations of the jail, saying it's a step above what it's been in the past.
The complex was not without its problems, with Howell pointing to space management and various other issues which plagued the jail for years. One of the rooms near the front of the jail had been used as nothing more than storage for years according to Carrow, but it has since been transformed into a chaplain's office. The office was also installed with technology allowing prisoners to make appearances in court via live streaming, but it has not been utilized yet.
Something very important to any jail had also gone years without maintenance, the locks. Years had gone by with the locks not getting any work done on them, leading to build-ups of debris, internal problems and some having issues with working at all. Howell said they brought in an expert to go through each one for service, leading to the belief the locks had never been looked at since the building's finishing nearly a decade ago.
Constantly stressing the little things, Howell said things like new uniforms, distinct badges and new equipment have lead to an increased moral. The officers in the jail now have their own uniforms signifying their department, and a pale, silver badge and emblem to go with it.
The Sheriff's Office also recently raised the price for other counties to house inmates in Ashe. Out-of-county inmates in Ashe is a common occurrence, with Howell recently saying over 50 were being housed there, nearly one-third of the maximum capacity of the jail.
The Ashe County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the fee for other counties from $40 per day to $45, which Howell said would add some extra income to the Sheriff's Office for future flexibility. At the same meeting, the board approved a new computer system for the jail, adding one more thing to the list of improvements.
Being around the County
Howell and Houck have made it a point for them and their officers to be seen in the county, to let people know they're there, be able to talk to and available for those who need them. Houck said they've adjusted rotations to have more officers consistently out and about, while not overworking them. They said that the two of them being out in the community and working community events have helped the
Something else they've done is increased the frequency of checking in on registered sex offenders in Ashe County. A recent example is May 31, when Houck led one of four teams who made stops around the county checking on the 38 offenders who aren't in jail. Houck said the checks had become less frequent over the past few years, but the ACSO is working to get them back to a relatively regular schedule. While going through the checks, officers found drugs in some locations and the occasional offender who just wasn't home. Houck said since they aren't notified beforehand, it isn't surprising for one to have something else going on.
Something that was brought up by officers at the ACSO was the purchase of new handguns. Howell said the process to get the guns were relatively easy, the planning and work to get to the point of purchase took about six months. The guns being used already were roughly a decade old, with Howell wanting to keep the lifespan of used firearms to between three and five years. The office will be transitioning from .45-caliber handguns to 9mm ones, which be just as effective while cutting down on the cost of ammunition. Houck said the added ability of attached lights will help officers do their jobs better.
One of Houck's first things at the ACSO was straightening out the office's patrol room. At the time, there was only one computer for the officers to file reports on at the end of their shift, which Houck wasn't having.
"We were having guys staying over their shift and building time up, just because they're waiting to do their reports," Houck said. "On the administrative end of it, you're killing yourself."
Houck made a few calls and was able to get three cubicles and new computers to go with them. Houck called the decision a "no-brainer" and said things like it help both efficiency and moral.
Houck said something else they've done is make changes in office locations to better organize the different departments. The detectives, sergeants and other positions are now closer together, making it easier to communicate and work.
Howell said much is still yet to be done with the ACSO, saying there are many plans still in the works and he doubts they'll ever feel totally finished. He added that it's imperative they keep up and raise the office to whatever standards are out at the time, while pushing to go above and beyond them.