Forsyth County Sheriff Duane Piper recently paused to reflect on his first year in office.
A veteran lawman that spent 16 years with the agency before retiring to run for office, Piper was elected in 2012. He succeeded former three-term Sheriff Ted Paxton, who he defeated in a Republican primary runoff election.
The office has undergone many changes since he took the helm on Jan. 1, 2013, and Piper discussed the highlights in a conversation with the Forsyth County News.
FCN: What has been the agency’s biggest accomplishment?
Piper: “Changing the culture of the agency.”
“It had almost become like the agency was here to support the agency, rather than to serve the public.
“The culture that we wanted to bring back was twofold: a culture of service — understanding that the reason that we exist is to provide a service to the community, to the citizens of the county — and to bring some sense to the fiscal condition of the sheriff’s office.
Creating a management team with a focus on serving the public in law enforcement and with “business acumen” to rein in the large agency budget started what Piper called the change in culture.
He credited the employees and deputies with effecting those changes.
FCN: Something you thought would be hard, but was simple?
Piper: “Managing the fleet of patrol vehicles.”
“Our initial thought was with getting vehicles to the standard they need to be, we were looking at 18 months to two years minimum.
“With the realignment, the help of the county and the [refurbishing] program, we accomplished that in nine months.”
The average mileage of a patrol vehicle has been cut in half from the start of 2013 to year’s end, according to agency figures.
The typical life of a patrol vehicle, for safety reasons, is about 80,000 to 100,000, Piper said.
The sheriff’s office has gotten that average down from above the mileage standard to well below by reassigning newer vehicles to street deputies, refurbishing existing cars and receiving support from the county commissioners to buy new ones.
On that note, Piper added that he had gotten the impression the relationship with the county commission would be “adversarial,” but that hasn’t been the case.
“They have the same goals and aims that we have,” he said.
FCN: Something you thought would be easy, but was more of a challenge?
Piper: “Changing the culture of the agency.”
“It’s not been difficult, but it’s been slower than I thought it would be.
“I think the reason is that it’s easy for me. I went through a campaign, and I talked about this for a year and a half. When my staff started coming together and we talked about it, we knew what needed to change for the good of the agency, for the good of the public.
“For us, it was an instant change. For everybody else that was here, it was not that simple … Change is never easy.”
Piper added that the change has taken place thanks to the deputies and employees of the sheriff’s office effectuating the improved level of service he’d envisioned.
Deputies have taken on new responsibilities by cross-training in several areas of law enforcement and raised their performance standards.
He was also proud that deputies’ response times to emergency calls has improved by 15 seconds despite the number of employees decreasing.
FCN: What is the state of the budget? Were you able to make the cuts you campaigned on?
Piper: “In actuality, we probably cut a little bit more than $5 million, but we put some of it back in. We reinvested in infrastructure and human resources.”
By the end of the year, Piper expects to return more than $2 million to the county general fund, in addition to the $1.2 million earlier this year.
Most of the $2 million refund will be put toward a pay raise for deputies.
Some of the savings, he said, has been used to update technology and invest in new equipment.
FCN: What was the transition from the previous administration like for the agency?
Piper: “To the deputies’ and employees’ credit, adjusting to a realignment this massive … We changed the chain of command, changed the reporting, we realigned everything. And they did it. They implemented it and the public never felt it, which is the goal.”
The agency underwent a restructuring in February, which shifted the divisions within the agency and eliminated 11 positions Piper described as middle and upper management.
He said the layoffs “removed redundancies” and “unnecessary layers” within the agency, and have improved efficiency.
“It was quite shocking to the folks that were here, but again, to their credit … they picked it up, kept it going, and actually improved what we were doing,” Piper said.
He also extended thanks to two members of the previous administration’s command staff who agreed to stay with the office for a few months to assist with the transition.
FCN: What trends have you seen in crime this year?
Piper: “Our biggest trending crime still, it has been for a few years, is white collar crime — identity theft, financial fraud.”
“Narcotics has been our highest increase in numbers of arrests from this year to last,” he continued. “That’s not a result of more narcotics, but more enforcement.
“We’ve made some changes there and it has resulted in much more proactive enforcement.”
Overall, Piper said crime rates have remained steady, though arrests are up.
FCN: What’s in store for 2014? Challenges and expectations?
Piper: “It’s proving to be a challenge to [recruit and hire entry level detention officers] mainly because of our raised standards.”
“That’s the biggest challenge I see in 2014. We’re not willing to lower our standards just to let people in … to staff the new jail.”
Piper said the agency has returned to using polygraph testing and has been “selective” in hiring, though the new jail, expected to open at the start of 2015, will require more officers.
His most anticipated part of 2014 “is seeing the results from some of the work that we, the employees and the deputies have done this year.”
The agency increased training, including a new leadership “boot camp” for sergeants, he said.
He plans to institute new programs in late 2014 that will reward employees for good work.