RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – When Richmond voters go over this year’s Democratic primary ballot, they’ll see the names of candidates, some familiar, vying for the three top elected offices in Virginia.
One race down the ballot typically overshadowed during election season will decide the city’s next sheriff, a position with little oversight that residents may know little about but still vote on every four years.
Elected sheriffs have different roles depending on which locality they serve. Sheriff’s offices can act as local law enforcement, administer local jails, protect courtrooms and serve summonses.
“They [voters] know what a sheriff is kind of,” Rich Meagher, politics professor at Randolph-Macon College, said in an interview. “But it’s such a technical job, that requires a dispassionate expert in a particular function of government, so it’s hard for anyone without a background in law enforcement to truly understand the nuances of the role.”
The majority of counties in Virginia rely on a local sheriff’s office to police their communities, with only nine counties, Henrico and Chesterfield being two, having their own separate police departments.
The Richmond Police Department investigates crimes and enforces the law in the city, leaving the sheriff’s office with more traditional roles: operating the city jail, staffing and protecting the city’s three courthouses with deputies, serving court documents and transporting inmates and suspected offenders.
Unlike local police chiefs, who are appointed and have to answer to elected officials who can hire and fire them, sheriffs pitch their campaigns to voters and are chosen every four years. This allows them to avoid much of the scrutiny and oversight that other law enforcement officers often experience.
On many occasions, local sheriffs run unopposed and maintain control for years as sheriff races get little attention and employees don’t typically wish to challenge for their boss’s job or publicly support someone else. Nine sheriffs in Virginia have served their respective localities for over 20 years, according to the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association.
Two law enforcement veterans compete for Richmond sheriff in June primary
Richmond’s current sheriff, Antionette V. Irving, is seeking another term after defeating former Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. in the city’s 2017 Democratic primary. Irving had challenged Woody, who began serving in 2006, twice before winning the office.
Irving worked in the Henrico County Sheriff’s Office for over 26 years, eventually retiring as a sheriff’s major before becoming Richmond’s sheriff. She has pitched that experience, along with work to help offenders better re-enter into society after serving their time and her management of the city jail during the coronavirus pandemic, to voters.
Last August, a COVID-19 outbreak in the Richmond City jail infected over 100 inmates. Meagher said the pandemic makes it difficult to evaluate Irving’s performance in her first term, explaining that problems within facilities were exacerbated due to the virus.
In an interview Monday, Woody called the position a “tough job” to manage but said the first responsibility of the city’s sheriff is “the safety and security of the jail.”
William J. Burnett, a former Richmond police officer who was appointed by Woody as lieutenant colonel for jail operations in 2006, is running against Irving in the Democratic primary. He has called to initiate community programs to help the city’s youth avoid entering the criminal justice system and, like Irving, is pushing for better resources for those incarcerated in the city jail to use once they are released.
“It’s up to the citizens to know what a sheriff is and to hold us accountable,” Burnett said in an interview when asked about the lack of oversight over sheriffs across the country. “I want everybody to know the role, and understand the role and hold me accountable.”
Burnett was critical of Irving’s previous calls for more money to recruit and keep deputies on staff, saying it’s not just about money but about how people in those positions are treated. Irving, who has pledged to run a positive campaign, did not respond to 8News’ request for an interview by the time of publication.
Who else is voting for their next sheriff in 2021?
This year, voters in the cities of Alexandria, Charlottesville, Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News and Roanoke will join those in Richmond to vote for their respective sheriffs. Among those races, only Hampton, Richmond and Roanoke have more than one person vying for the spot.
Early voting for the June 8 primary has already begun.