NEW CUMBERLAND - Ralph Fletcher is a big man, with a big mustache and some big ideas about where he wants to take the Hancock County Sheriff's Department.
Fletcher, 60, of Weirton, won election Nov. 6 as the new sheriff and is preparing to succeed two-term Sheriff Mike White on Jan. 1. The transition, he said, will mean some changes for the department and for law enforcement in Hancock County.
"Our crime rate has increased considerably over the last 10 years, so we need to address that ... and that takes manpower," he said.
Fletcher said he's not in the position to increase the size of the department, for budgetary reasons, but he wants to make the best use of the talent he has. That may require some reassignments and additional training for deputies.
"We've got a really good, solid foundation here. I'm very pleased with their work output," he said, noting that he wants to take a good department and make it better.
Among the changes Fletcher is anticipating is the appointment of a new chief deputy and increasing the size of the detective division. Fletcher declined to say whether current Chief Deputy Todd Murray has applied, or been interviewed, for the position.
Murray, who has served as chief deputy for eight years under White, said he has interviewed for the position but doesn't know what the new sheriff's plans are. The chief deputy is the second-in-command and is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the department.
For the last 10 years, Fletcher has been special investigator for the Hancock County Prosecutor's Officer. Most of his 34-year career in law enforcement he spent at the Weirton Police Department - the last four years (1998-2002) as police chief. Upon his retirement, he took a position with Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort, where he helped set up an armed guard unit.
But it is his work with the prosecutor's office that he said is most relevant to his upcoming duties as sheriff.
"I've been involved with all the felony investigations (in the county)," he said. "I'm very familiar with the crime we have occurring here and with the officers doing the initial investigation."
Fletcher believes it is his experience both in private- and public-sector law enforcement that won him the election, in which he defeated Republican challenger and fellow Weirton lawman Ronald P. Haggerty Sr.
"I felt I had a lot to offer our community, and I felt I was well qualified," he said. "I was able to convince the majority of the voters that I was well qualified."
Being elected sheriff, he said, is the culmination of a lifetime in law enforcement.
As Weirton police chief, Fletcher was responsible for 40 sworn officers, 22 non-sworn personnel and an annual budget of $2.7 million. With the sheriff's department, he'll be responsible for 26 sworn officers, a process server, five tax office personnel, a jail administrator and a handful of clerical staff.
Fletcher said he wants to make some personnel changes, especially in terms of deputy deployment and growing the detective division. But, he said, "I'm not going in there and mixing things up there right away. ... What can we do with what we have?"
As for the day-to-day work of deputies, Fletcher said, "There's definitely room for improvement - from traffic stops to full-blown felony investigations."
Fletcher said he especially stresses the importance of "good follow-up, good follow-through" on cases.
Also on his to-do list early in his administration is getting out into the community and talking to the public about law enforcement priorities. Fletcher said he wants the department to focus more on community policing.
"Crimes are solved by the people in the community - by them feeling like they can come forward (to report crimes) and that it will be followed up on," he said.
As he stated during the campaign, Fletcher said his law enforcement priorities include drug crime, property crime and the connection between the two.
"Almost all our property crime is tied to drugs - they go hand-in-hand," he said.
(Huba can be contacted at email@example.com)