By Brett Milam
This is the second part of a two-part interview with Clermont County Sheriff Robert Leahy. For part one, click here.
Clermont County Sheriff Robert S. Leahy, originally from Middletown, started in policing in 1991 and always wanted to be a policeman.
Leahy became the new sheriff on Jan. 2, 2017 after former Sheriff A.J. “Tim” Rodenberg retired. Rodenberg served for 20 years in the position.
Now, his son is on that same path, as Leahy’s son is actually going to be a policeman and starts the academy in January.
“First of all, I told him I wanted him to be an airline pilot or something. I think there’s a lot of responsibilities on it and let’s face it, you can get hurt any day,” Leahy said.
“Something I explained to him is that things can happen quickly but if you’re trained properly and you’re respectful and your decent to people and treat them fairly, you’ll go a long way; you can be the hammer, but if you start living like that, everything can be a nail. Just treat people how you want your family treated and that really goes a long way.”
Leahy thinks its useful to keep in mind the dangers of the job, but it’s not as bad as a “war on cops” or an “us vs. them” mentality between police and citizens.
“I like to think it’s not that bad; I can only speak direct to the citizens of Clermont County and we and not only the sheriff’s office, but other law enforcement in this county have excellent relationships with the community; all in all, here, we have a really good working relationship with people.”
As he moved up the ranks, Leahy said he went from sleeping nine hours a night to four or five because the responsibility changes. One of those new responsibilities was Narcan, a heroin overdose reversal drug, which the Clermont County Sheriff’s Office started carrying in 2014.
Others, like Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones, see the advent of Narcan as one of the dangers, however. Jones told The Enquirer on July 6, 2017 that his deputies will never carry it because it puts his deputies’ lives in danger.
“When we first decided to start carrying Narcan, some of the supervisors when we had a meeting, explained to them, ‘Would you go to somebody’s house who was morbidly obese and had a heart attack, and you see cupcakes and zingers lying around, even though we equip our people with AEDs, would you not attempt to save their lives? Of course you would,’” Leahy said. “I know it sounds simplistic, but it is simplistic. You’re not going to save everybody and you’re not going to get everybody clean.”
Leahy continued, “You see some of the comments of people in the paper that you should just let people die. Well, first of all, I say that’s preposterous and if they had family members that were in their bedroom dying, they wouldn’t really advocate that. And they would probably be the first person screaming up and down that the police did nothing.”
Police are also creatures of habit and take time to change, Leahy said.
“As the sheriff, I know that not just throwing them in jail takes care of the situation, but our job as police is protection of life and property and when we do that there’s gotta be a happy medium. Does it mean that somebody’s at their house and they’ve overdosed and I go there and attempt to save them or a deputy attempts to save them? I think so, we owe that to the community and it’s not for me to decide anything above and beyond that, other than if they’ve violated the law, we take action upon that.”
Leahy said people in a position to make change realizes they can’t save everybody, but if you can still make a difference, to make the OD deaths to go down or burglaries to go down, then you’re doing what the community expects you to do.
There has to be a level of accountability, so the community has trust with the police, Leahy said. The community doesn’t want to think they are getting the “short end of the stick.”
Additionally, Leahy said he does believe in the education aspect of the opioid epidemic and treatment, as well as enforcement. There’s also a community buy-in, he said, which makes it a multi-pronged attacked. Police can’t do it alone, but part of enforcement entails jailing.
“When I took over the office, one thing I wanted to make certain; I wanted policemen in the county to know that if they had somebody they wanted to put in jail, who needed to be in jail, that we were going to accommodate them and if there were judges who had somebody that they wanted to put in jail, I’m going to accommodate them,” Leahy said. “But we have a jail for a reason and the people who need to be in there, they need to be in there.”
However, there’s also those who don’t need to be in jail, Leahy said, like those with a medical issue that the jail can’t treat or who have a mental health issues, which he said was a “constant battle.”
“You may be able to recognize and identify them, but to get the system to understand, hey I can’t provide for this person medically, it’s a liability, I can’t guarantee their safety, though we have a medical staff there, it’s a jail. We’re not the local Mercy hospital. We’re not a trauma center. We can’t provide certain care for people. Again, mental health issues. People who have severe mental health issues, jail is not the place for them. State prison’s not the place for them. You know, a mental health facility is where they should be at. So those are things we’re always battling,” Leahy said.
Leahy has said his jail population has gone up since he’s taken office, fluctuating, day-to-day, between 370 and 400 inmates, although they try to stay around that 370 marker, he said.
It’s a balancing act between those who are threats to the community and those who probably shouldn’t be in jail, he said.
“I look at, how does it impact the community; how’s it going to impact this office?” Leahy said.
Regarding the community alternative sentencing program and the added wing for women, which the Board of County Commissioners approved at their July 12 meeting, Leahy said it’s progressive. On July 13, CNN’s Poppy Harlow was in town to interview the sheriff about the program; it’s the only program of its kind in Ohio.
The segment is expected to air on CNN in a few weeks.
“That’s not letting anyone get a pass, they’re still being incarcerated. But they’re doing something anybody out in the community would agree, ‘You know what, if we get some people who have drugs issues and they’re addicted and you put them in jail and you’re restricting them and you give them the tools to get better, then okay, that’s money well-spent,’” Leahy said.
Leahy said he’s glad the commissioners are in on it and he’s happy to allow a wing for it in the jail; it’s the buy-in he talked about.
“How can you cut out one of the biggest segments of society; one of the fastest growing segments of drug-use: women? Our population of women, that’s consistently over. These are mothers. Those are things that they definitely need fixed,” Leahy said.
Contracted police services
Leahy said they recently gave a proposal for contracted police services to the village of New Richmond, which would essentially mean consolidating dispatch services, so that dispatch calls for the village would run through the sheriff’s office instead.
“They decided against it; there was a financial savings to them, but they decided against it. I think basically and I don’t want to puts words in their mouth, they still wanted to keep a small-town feel. Is that a good enough reason? I don’t live in New Richmond and I’m not a public official there. But I think eventually, as I explained here to the command staff and supervisors, I’m a big a believer in the pie theory,” Leahy said.
In other words, Leahy said, communities will have to make a decision eventually about shared services and not just with the police.
“I do believe shared services are going to be the wave of the future,” he said. “Whether that’s today, may not be in my lifetime as my terms, it may come in 10 or 15 years, but people are only going to pay so much tax. Where we can get the best bang for our buck? It was unfortunate that that went that direction; I thought that was a good time for them and I thought they were going to have a good opportunity to have, at least what I felt was outstanding service and the opportunity to save money.”
Leahy added, “Not that we gotta be in the business of putting people out of business, you go into a place like that and instead of them having their own department, they do away with their liability insurance and all their other things and it becomes the sheriff.”
The way Leahy looks at it, it’s a cost-saving measure for the smaller departments.
“It take people that are really progressive and disciplined because nobody likes to
give up their police and fire because they feel they lose their autonomy over that,” he said.
Leahy was also pleased to see the Owensville annexation didn’t come to pass. He even wrote a letter to the editor to various publications, including The Clermont Sun, in opposition to the annexation.
The petition for the disputed annexation of 224.0034 acres from Stonelick Township to the village of Owensville was withdrawn at the Board of County Commissioners meeting on May 10.
“I understood the villages needs, but the way that it was coming back to me was that it was being told to residents that lived outside the village, if you agreed to annex in, we can provide better police services for you and I heard it once, I heard it twice and it was repetitive and my statement was no, they can’t. They can’t provide better services, it’s practically impossible,” Leahy said. “First of all, based upon about a $150,000 or a 200,000-a-year budget. I have close to a $20 million budget and instead of having two or three full-time employees, I have 220 full-time employees and about 100 of them are sworn policemen on the streets. So that was my thing.”
Leahy continued, “Now you know what, the people who live in the village of Owensville may be completely satisfied with their police. That was not a statement against them. It was a statement of the fact that somebody some place doesn’t need to be telling these people ― I call boogeyman tactics ― I can provide as good a service or better than any of the law enforcement in the county and I believe that because I believe in the people who work here.”
Leahy said he never did hear what benefit there was to the annexation.
“I felt it was my responsibility as an elected county sheriff who served the area that was talking about the annexation to be annexed into and I had people there calling me, asking me all these questions and instead of answering two or three phones a day, I felt like this was better to put a letter to the editor in. Like I said, I’m not a big person who goes stand on the street, beats my chest and is political. I work hard at keeping me as the sheriff, not as a political mouthpiece and not doing something that was self-serving to me. It’s for the community; they need to understand that. I don’t want to be a celebrity,” he said.
or Leahy, policing is about bringing common sense to the problem and don’t try to “kill an egg with a sledgehammer.”
“I really just try to incorporate common sense and when I make decisions here at the office, I like a lot of input and I try to think, ‘How would it affect my employees, the deputies I’m going to ask to do this; how does it affect the citizens; and how does it affect me as being elected sheriff?’ And I try to prioritize it like that,” he said.
It’s the little things now
As for what gets Leahy excited about police work all these years later, he said he really likes the interaction with young people and kids; kids who are excited about seeing the police.
“I’m not a big political person per se, but I like going to gatherings and functions where people want to see the sheriff and law enforcement in a different light, so that’s good,” he said. “I like to see employees here do well and get recognition; I like seeing the office get positive reaction.”
He also likes to see other law enforcement organizations throughout the state refer to Clermont’s operation as “top notch.”
“Not so much the ‘blood and guts’ of it anymore,” Leahy said. “I like it when there’s nothing bad going on.”