Smith recaps first year accomplishments


When Sheriff Nick Smith took office in January, the question in some voters' minds was if  the approach that had worked for him at two small town police departments would be successful at the county level.

The list of goals achieved now encompasses several notebook pages, which Smith spent several minutes reviewing at his desk this week. "It's been a pretty good year" was his final assessment. 

The department's finances, an initial concern of Smith's, are currently on solid footing. After inheriting budgets for the sheriff's department and jail that were trending several percentage points high for the first quarter, Smith finished the fiscal year at 1 percent under budget overall.

The department has also received nearly $100,000 this year in grants and private donations to purchase equipment such as vests, body cameras (a first for the department) and computers.

Additional revenue is now coming in for housing federal inmates awaiting trial. Smith recently told Walker County Commission that if the contract with federal officials from 2007 can be renegotiated soon, the jail's budget will be boosted by up to $500,000 a year.

Improving the jail, making it safer for staff and inmates alike, has been a focus of Smith's first year in office. 

In January, the Walker County Commission approved spending approximately $900,000 to install new locks and cameras and make other overdue repairs at the jail. The project is now nearing completion, which allowed Smith to begin accepting federal inmates and also enabled jail staff to recently begin placing all inmates on lockdown at night for the first time in a decade.

Lockdowns, combined with a move to having medical staff on-site 16 hours a day, is expected to help prevent inmate deaths that have occurred in the past. 

Smith has also taken steps such as developing a policy manual for jail employees, starting to offer online jail training and promoting a corrections training officer. Such moves are necessary both to improving the overall operation and to getting the jail nationally accredited. 

Upon taking office, Smith quickly made good on several campaign promises, such as placing school resource officers in three county schools not served by a municipal police department. 

He also hired retired investigator Mike Cole to work cold cases involving missing persons. Though no cold cases have yet been solved, Cole has followed up on several leads and the department spent a month this fall draining a strip pit pond in Sipsey after getting information that at least one body could be found there. Another property was recently searched for clues.

This week, Smith fulfilled another campaign promise — acquiring two more drug dogs so that each shift has its own. 

Smith's playbook from his days as a chief has so far served him well. Community programs he started elsewhere such as the Good Morning program for seniors, the Mercy Project for individuals seeking help for an addiction and civilian firearms courses have made the seamless transition to a countywide electorate.

Other successful outreach attempts include establishing substations in Sipsey, Curry and Townley and hosting the department's first quarterly town hall meeting in Empire last month.

Smith has been pleased with the cooperation of community members that has resulted in the arrest of several individuals from the 15 Most Wanted list established in his administration and publicized each month on social media. 

The year has not been without its setbacks and controversies. 

In May, Smith and WCSO director of operations Nick Key received some pushback on a plan to establish a substation at the old Parrish High School. A second location burned in August approximately two weeks before it was set to open.

Also in August, Oakman teen Austin Aaron died after being struck by a Walker County Sheriff's deputy at night.  

Recently, the department came under fire from the Freedom from Religion Foundation for Facebook posts asking people to pray following Aaron's death and after the recent shooting death of Lowndes County Sheriff Big John Williams.

On a personal level, Smith has been pleased with the progress made at the department but wishes it had happened faster. Red tape has kept some projects such as jail renovations bogged down months after a decision to proceed is made.

The 20-year-old facility that is starting to show its age has been another obstacle.

"Sometimes it feels like you take one step and then something tears up and knocks you two steps back," Smith said.