By Joe Beck
STRASBURG -- Police Chief Tim Sutherly took the first steps Thursday night toward challenging Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter in next year's election.
Sutherly told the Strasburg Town Council that he is forming an exploratory committee before launching a campaign for sheriff as an independent candidate under the motto "policing above politics."
In written and spoken comments delivered after a closed session with council, Sutherly, 46, emphasized the need for more effective education and law enforcement to stop the spread of drugs throughout the county.
He also criticized Carter for assigning more personnel to undercover operations aimed at curbing illegal cigarette sales instead of concentrating on the drug trade.
Carter, a Republican first elected sheriff in 2003, is chairman of the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force, an organization combining sheriff's offices in Clarke, Frederick, Page Shenandoah and Warren counties, the Virginia State Police, Winchester and the towns of Front Royal and Strasburg. The task force includes 20 drug investigators and nine gang investigators.
"While I was an undercover investigator to the drug task force from 1990 to 1993, the Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office had four full-time officers assigned to the task force," Sutherly said. "Today, while facing the greatest threat to our community in memory, the heroin epidemic, the Sheriff's Office has two full-time officers assigned to the task force, while having up to six assigned to selling cigarettes to criminals from New York and New Jersey.
"The lack of proactive enforcement where it is most needed is having a devastating impact on our community."
Attempts to reach Carter by phone for comment about Sutherly's remarks were unsuccessful on Thursday evening.
The Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office annual report for 2013 states that the county's drug task force worked on 209 cases last year.
Sutherly called for new partnerships involving the Sheriff's Office and local organizations that would create customized drug programs that he argues would be more effective than current efforts.
"While the DARE program for fifth graders is well-intended, it is simply ineffective and more is needed," Sutherly said, adding, "the drug dangers facing the youth in Strasburg are not the same as those facing the youth in Woodstock, Mount Jackson and New Market. That is why the cookie cutter approach is ineffective."
Sutherly said Strasburg is beset by heroin, crack and abuse of prescription pills -- drugs commonly found in Winchester, Front Royal and other communities next to Interstate 81 or Interstate 66. The methamphetamine and marijuana that is more prevalent in the southern half of the county comes up from Harrisonburg, he said.
Sutherly also said the population in the southern part of the county is similar to what it was 20 years ago, but more people who formerly lived in the Washington, D.C., area have moved into Strasburg and neighboring areas in recent years.
Sutherly and Carter have clashed in the past on the issue of school security. Sutherly proposed having his department take over security at all three Strasburg-area schools in 2013, a change from the usual deployment of the Sheriff's Office handling security at Sandy Hook Elementary and Signal Knob Middle schools while Strasburg police were assigned to the high school.
Carter quickly rejected the proposal.
Sutherly said the dispute over the school security officers played no part in his decision to launch a possible campaign, but it is a reflection of a philosophy of local control he would bring to the Sheriff's Office.
"The more the locals handle it, the more effectively it is done," Sutherly said.
Sutherly, a graduate of Strasburg High School, has been the town's police chief since 2007. Before taking over as Strasburg's chief, he worked 17 years with the Warren County Sheriff's Office as a deep cover narcotics investigator and as a patrol sergeant, SWAT team member and commander.
Sutherly cited a drop in crime to its lowest level since statistics have been compiled as among his major accomplishments. He said the reduction in crime, which he also credits to support from the drug task force and "the outstanding work of our officers," was achieved at the same time the number of officers on the force decreased.
"I am a polished police officer with more than 25 years experience, not a polished politician, but I look forward to speaking to as many Shenandoah County residents as possible to see if my message resonates," Sutherly said.
Several members of the Town Council praised Sutherly and gave him their support after the meeting.
"He's honest, extremely honest and forthright. I think he'd make a wonderful sheriff," Donald Le Vine said.
Scott Terndrup said Sutherly has "done a great job as far as establishing a professional public safety presence in Strasburg."
"He's very people oriented," Terndrup said. "He's very oriented toward taking care of our children, our future."
Sutherly said he was confident he could handle the demands of a campaign and running the Strasburg department at the same time.
"When there is a conflict, I have plenty of leave time," Sutherly said. "I'll take personal leave."
He added that Maj. Jerome Robinson, the department's second highest ranking officer, would fill in for him as needed.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org