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Lee sheriff practices what he preaches

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

LEESBURG -- They have a saying around the Lee County Sheriff's Department.

"When Sheriff (Reggie) Rachals first took office, we looked at it as trying to build an airplane while it was flying," Lt. Col. Chris Owens says, and a gathering of some of the department's top deputies nods in agreement.

Rachals' 2008 election was a stunner in a county where former Sheriff Harold Breeden had entrenched himself in office for two decades. But Rachals had almost 27 years worth of law enforcement experience to fall back on, and he and what has turned out to be a loyal staff have indeed managed to keep that airplane flying along.

"When I started campaigning for this office, I went door-to-door and told the people of the county there were things I would do if they elected me," Rachals said. "Through the grace of God and the support of those people, I have been given this opportunity. And I feel that I owe it to the citizens to do the things I said I'd do.

"We established goals as a department, and what we have done in this first year is work toward accomplishing those goals. We've been able to meet a few of them already."

Indeed. The department has developed an enhanced Web site that offers photographs of LSO personnel and provides a link to state and local sex offender locators. More neighborhood watch groups have been established, and the department's public relations arm works closely with local schools and other groups on such issues as drug prevention.

"And we've established a much better working relationship with surrounding agencies in Dougherty, Sumter, Terrell, Crisp and Worth counties," Rachals says. "We've really worked hard to establish a relationship with the new Albany Police Chief (John Proctor) because we're well aware that gangs don't stop their activities at the county line."

County officials have taken notice of the work of the sheriff's office under Rachals. Lee Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said he's impressed that Rachals and his department have kept crime down in the county despite the fact funding for requested -- and needed -- personnel additions has not been available.

"The Lee Sheriff's Department has had no manpower increase since Wal-Mart came here, but the population of the county has increased by at least 10,000 people in that time," Duffy said. "The department is doing more now with the same number of people, and I credit that to the efficiency Sheriff Rachals has developed through increased training and professional standards.

"There's a renewed sense of esprit de corps within the department, a unity that comes through their dedication. I'm really impressed with what they've accomplished in the sheriff's first year."

Rachals, who grew up in Albany and started his career with the Albany Police Department in 1982, had long dreamed of one day becoming a sheriff. But he insists he was not thinking of running against longtime boss Breeden when the former sheriff more or less forced his hand.

"Sheriff Breeden felt threatened; people fed him false information, told him I was planning to run against him (in '08)," Rachals said. "Sure, I wanted to be sheriff one day, but I always told him I would not run against him."

Breeden evidently listened to the whispers of conspiracy, and he abruptly fired Rachals, who had worked his way up to No. 3 in command in the department, and others he considered "disloyal" in 2007.

Encouraged by supporters in the county, Rachals announced he would run against Breeden. He used the interim "vacation time" to continue his training, attending more law enforcement classes than were required of top law enforcement officials.

He won the July 2008 election with 55.73 percent of the vote and in November of that year created a stir when he asked 11 members of the department to resign, saying his actions were "in the best interest of Lee County." Rachals also at that time named Lewis Harris, a 10-year veteran with the department, as his chief deputy.

"A lot of internal changes have taken place under Sheriff Rachals," Harris said last week. "The idea is that the department work together as one unit, and Sheriff Rachals is leading the way. He doesn't just sit in his office; he answers calls, directs traffic, does whatever he asks any of us to do.

"This is a man who comes in here way before 8 o'clock every morning, and it's usually well after 6 before he leaves in the evening. He's a working sheriff; he's accountable to the people who elected him. This is not just about holding a position for him."

Owens, who is chief investigator for narcotics and criminal investigations and has 23 years of law enforcement experience, said Rachals has implemented needed changes.

"You're going to go through a period of adjustment," Owens said, "but under the new sheriff we're seeing changes that were necessary to increase efficiency. Sure, there were a few bumps and bruises along the way, but pretty much everyone has the interest of the people of Lee County in mind."

Capt. Keith Houston, a 20-year veteran who manages community relations, said Rachals' open-door policy is only part of what keeps him in the public eye.

"He's started handgun classes for women, helped develop neighborhood watch programs and has encouraged us to work more with all the schools in the county," Houston said. "But he doesn't just tell us to have the programs; he gets involved in them personally.

"He's not one of those adminitrators you'll see only when you call and make an appointment. Sheriff Rachals is not in this for personal gain; he sincerely cares about the people of this county."

While Lee County has seen tremendous growth in the last decade, the sheriff's department has been slow to keep pace. Still, with the exception of recession-fueled burglaries and thefts, the crime rate in the county remains amazingly under control.

And while Rachals, who became a part of the Lee department in 1989, admits that he would like to see funding and staffing keep up with the population growth, he says he understands the budget constraints county officials are working under.

"I feel that this department has to work in conjunction with the board of commissioners," he said. "Certainly if growth continues in the county as it is projected, there are concerns we will have to address. But right now we have a dedicated bunch of employees whose priority is keeping the county safe.

"I give a lot of credit to those folks out there on the front line who are covering their areas while keeping an eye on traffic violations."

Rachals' entire staff totals 83, 44 of whom are sworn law enforcement officers. Twenty-three of them are uniformed officers who patrol regions of the county.

"We understand that the sheriff's department is feeling the effects of our budget constraints," Duffy said. "We were able to give them a $350,000 budget increase last year -- one of only two departments whose budgets were increased. The board of commissioners has a difficult challenge in providing additional services for a growing population, while at the same time not increasing taxes.

"Because what they do -- securing the safety, health and welfare of every citizen of this county -- is one of the most important services we provide. Thankfully, it's something that department does very well."