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“This will be my last run,” said Sheriff Mike Brown, when he announced last week that he will seek reelection as sheriff this fall. “It’ll be 20 years.”
By 20 years, Brown means that when he leaves office in 2016 if he’s reelected in November, he would have completed 20 years in office. He was first elected in 1995 and took office in January, 1996.
Brown, a Big Island native, began his law enforcement career as a road deputy here in Bedford County in 1966. Jack Cundiff was sheriff then and Carl Wells was chief deputy.
“Carl Wells did my background investigation,” Brown said.
There was no police academy back then. New deputies learned the job via on-the-job training. Brown was issued a car, a uniform and a gun and assigned to work with an experienced deputy. The gun was a .38 cal. Smith & Wesson Model 10, a revolver with a 4-inch barrel.
“But my holster was for a 6-inch or 8-inch weapon,” Brown recalled.
As a result, the bottom of the holster curled up because the revolver’s barrel was not long enough to extend it.
Later, Brown served in the Army as an MP and, after leaving the Army, went to work for the Washington D. C. Metropolitan Police Force. Then, he landed a job with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF).
After retiring from the BATF he returned to Bedford County in 1994. Brown said that local Republicans asked him to run for sheriff, which he did and won in 1995.
Brown said that his first official act as sheriff was to stop ordering police cars painted brown. He said that he did this for two reasons. In the first place it cost between $300 and $500 more to paint a police car that color. Furthermore, its the second hardest color to see on the highway. He said that the second most visible color on the road is white.
According to Brown, the most visible color is international orange.
“But I didn’t think people wanted to see cars in international orange,” he said.
Brown said that he also looked for other ways to save money. He’s been able to get tactical equipment and surveillance equipment for free from federal surplus. He also got the department’s armored vehicle for free.
The vehicle is a used armored car that a private company provided to his office at no cost. He then used hard ballistic armor, that he had received from federal surplus at no cost, and used that to reinforce the armored car’s existing structure. Other than for training purposes, Brown said his office uses the vehicle about once a year.
“But, it’s there when we need it,” he said.
In 1999, Brown oversaw Bedford County Sheriff’s Office’s successful effort to become accredited by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice. Bedford County’s was the eighth sheriff’s office in Virginia to earn accreditation, and has been reaccredited ever since. Reaccreditation takes place every four years and the most recent was in 2009.
Brown also placed sheriff’s office substations in New London, Big Island, Montvale and Downtown Moneta. Brown said that these were opened at no cost to the county. The substations allow deputies to file reports without having to drive back to the main office on Falling Creek Road. This reduces mileage on police cars.
He also introduced, “Go Gas” cards. These cards allow police vehicles to gas up at any local gas station and not have to pay the 35 cents in tax on each gallon of gasoline.
The county contracts for bulk gasoline every year and fills up its tanks at the contracted price. If a deputy needs gas, and sees a price at a gas station that, when 35 cents is subtracted, is less than the county’s contracted price, he can gas up there. Brown said that the county’s current contract price is $2.44 per gallon, so deputies use that to gas up police cars. But, back when they could find it for $2.79, they used the “Go Gas” cards to buy at local stations. The cards give the deputies the flexibility to do whatever is cheapest and Brown said that this saved the county $20,000.
Operation Blue Ridge Thunder also began during Brown’s watch. It was implemented, early in Brown’s first term in office, when a woman called saying that a man in Florida was contacting her 13-year-old daughter wanting her to come down and make porn films. One of Brown’s deputies, Sergio Kopelev, was assigned to investigate. Kopelev sent the results of the investigation to authorities in Florida and the man was charged. Afterward, Kopelev came to Brown with more information.
“Boss, you aren’t going to believe what I’m seeing on the Internet,” Kopelev told Brown.
Brown gave Kopelev permission to spend five hours a week doing Internet investigations and Kopelev developed six cases in six months.
Then, Brown learned that the federal Department of Justice was getting ready to award 10 grants to start an Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force. Kopelev filled out the forms for the application and Brown and Kopelev worked on writing the grant. Brown said he wasn’t optimistic because they were competing with large law enforcement agencies, such as the New York Police Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Virginia State Police.
“Here we were, little old Bedford County,” Brown commented.
Late in 1997, Congressman Bob Goodlatte called Brown to inform him that the department had received one of the grants. The Bedford County Sheriff’s Office was the smallest law enforcement agency, and the only rural sheriff’s department, to get one. A year later, Operation Blue Ridge Thunder was featured on the news magazine program 48 Hours.
“We’ve gotten it [the Department of Justice grant] every year,” Brown said.
Since its inception, Operation Blue Ridge Thunder has had a 100 percent conviction rate on every person that it has charged. Many of its investigations have involved stings, including efforts that caught an aide to a former governor of West Virginia and a United Arab Emirates Diplomat. Others involved hauling in people who had preyed on real children. A recent one was Carlos Rose who, Brown said, was involved with two Bedford County girls he met on the Internet. Another was a man named Jimmy Lee Cook, who Brown said was on the national most wanted list. Bedford County investigators discovered that he was living in a tent in Campbell County, near a middle school. This information led to his arrest. Brown said that Randy Smith, one of his deputies, was nominated for a national award for his part in the investigation.
“It [Operation Blue Ridge Thunder] is protecting the kids of Bedford County,” Brown said.
Brown said that there are now 72 ICAC task forces in the United States and Bedford County investigators are nationally and internationally respected for their expertise.
“They are very good at what they do,” he said.
In other efforts to help Bedford County’s youth, the Sheriff’s Office brought Youth Of VA Speak Out (YOVASO), a program that promotes driving sober and using seat belts, to Bedford County’s schools. Brown’s office also started BEDCO Cares, which makes a skid car and a driving simulator available to the school’s driver education program. BEDCO Cares was started in response to a rash of fatal accidents involving teen drivers. The purpose of the skid car and driving simulator is to teach student drivers how to handle driving situations.
The Sheriff’s Office has also started a Law Enforcement Explorer Scout unit in Bedford County. It’s based at Liberty High School and interested teens can call the Sheriff’s Office at 586-4800 and ask to speak to Capt. Timothy Hayden about the program.
When Brown took over as sheriff, a volunteer program called TRIAD was already in place. Brown added four more volunteer programs and these save the county money. Brown said that the eight TRIAD volunteers saved the county $21,000 by working at the courthouse and doing administrative work. The RSVP volunteers saved the county $53,000 by performing a number of duties, such as funeral escorts and traffic control, at events that don’t require a sworn officer.
During his final term, if elected, Brown wants to build on three initiatives that he’s already started. One is predictive policing. This involves analyzing crime data to spot patterns, which allows him to allocate deputies more effectively.
A second is Reverse 911. This allows the Sheriff’s Office to contact all listed phone numbers in an area and Brown has already used this to set up a meeting in the Goodview area to talk to residents about a rash of house break-ins that followed a pattern a predictive policing analysis had spotted. He also used it to alert people in the New London area about car break-ins that followed a pattern his investigators had spotted. Brown said that Reverse 911 would also be valuable in the event of a disaster such as a hazardous chemical spill or a wildland fire that threatened homes. His plan for his next term is to upgrade the equipment used for this so that the messages can be delivered faster, and to make it possible to call cell phones. Brown said that, in order to reach cell phones, people will have to put their cell number into a database that the system uses.
A third initiative is automatic license plate recognition. Brown already has one unit, which deputies are testing, and plans to add two more. The units look like a radar unit and can be placed in a police car, or set up on a stationary mount. They read license plates and compare them to a database of license plate numbers. If a license plate matches one for a stolen vehicle, or somebody who police want to talk to, it alerts the deputy. It will also inform the deputy if it has made a partial match.
According to Brown, the cost of doing all of this is being paid for by money from criminal forfeitures.