January 4, 2011

New Dare sheriff, Doug Doughtie, aims to foster stronger community relationships

BY CATHERINE KOZAK


Doug Doughtie has taken over the Dare County Sheriff’s Office at a tough time, handicapped by government budget crunches and a disengaged, discouraged citizenry.

But the veteran lawman, a big man who greets visitors with a cheery smile and a vigorous handshake, said that the key to effective law enforcement comes down to being more approachable, visible and accessible.  And less intimidating.

“I want to be open,” Doughtie said in a recent interview at his Manteo office in the Dare County Courthouse. “I want people to know that they can come in anytime -- that they can talk to me anytime.”

Doughtie, 53, is well known in the county’s law enforcement circles --- he was a sheriff’s deputy here for 17 years, followed by a part-time stint in Duck ---- but he also has earned his authentic local stripes by holding numerous second jobs over the years, including as a newspaper carrier, a school bus driver and a pool cleaner. That’s in addition to volunteering at his church and his three sons’ schools.

It doesn’t hurt that he knows all the police chiefs in the county’s six towns.

“The best part about it is we’re all friends,” he said. “There’s a very nice working environment for everybody.”

Community policing has come to seem trendy, yet Doughtie, who lives with his wife Shanon and two of their sons in Kill Devil Hills, said it’s just basic police work. That’s what he did, he said, when he started his career in 1977 in Ahoskie, where he worked for 12 years.

The police captain then, Steve Hoggard, is now Doughtie’s chief deputy sheriff.

When Doughtie decided to challenge incumbent Sheriff Rodney Midgett, who was elected in 2002 after serving for 20 years as chief deputy under retired Sheriff Bert Austin of Hatteras village, he said he believed that the department had strayed from its mission and was disconnected from the community.  Running on the Republican ticket, he defeated Midgett in the majority of the county’s precincts.

Soon after being sworn in, Doughtie said, he decided to change the shifts for road deputies from 10 hours to 12 hours, which provides at least two people covering each district --- Hatteras, Manteo, the Beach (Colington and Martin’s Point) --- around the clock. 

He also directed the department’s 63 or so officers to find someone to mentor, to assist, or to befriend.  At least once a week, the deputy has to contact the person.

“I want to be able to touch their lives,” Doughtie said. “I want them to know that somebody cares enough to give them a phone call.”

As soon as possible, he wants Dare, like Currituck is doing successfully, to start using Nixle, a secured mobile system that allows public safety alerts to be circulated between law enforcement agencies and the public in real time, similar to Twitter. 

He is also working to get video cameras back into sheriff’s vehicles. As a police tool, they serve two invaluable purposes, he said -- protecting officers from false charges from the public and protecting the public from abusive police behavior.

Although he declined to point fingers at the former sheriff or a specific deputy, Doughtie said he is aware of talk on the street complaining about such things as sheriff deputies setting up a DWI checkpoint to nab a wedding party, and others that cited times citizens were roughed up, and when drug searches were conducted for questionable reasons. 

“I’ve heard some stories that made me cringe,” he said.

Whether such accounts are true or not, Doughtie said, “Perception is the name of the game. “Different people see different things.” 

Doughtie said that deputies mingling and talking in the neighborhoods will go a long way toward changing the relationship between them and the community. Familiarity will grow mutual trust, which will grow improved cooperation, which will lead to better information sharing, which will lead to more efficient policing, which will lead to safer neighborhoods.

Stopping and searching, as well as road blocks, to some extent can be useful, he said, but “we’re not bumper-chasing --- that’s not what we’re looking at.”
 
On Hatteras Island, Doughtie said, he has heard complaints of some people being so intimidated by sheriff deputies that they were afraid to speak to them. But at the same time, islanders have spoken highly about other deputies there, including Lt. Doug Overbeck.  

Overbeck, who has accepted a position with the department as a full-time polygraph examiner, will be replaced by Greg Wilson, who had formerly been a lieutenant under Sheriff Austin. Also, Tami Willis, an investigator on the island, at her request, will be returning as a road deputy.

Doughtie believes that the persistent drug problem on the island and elsewhere in the county will be alleviated by more trust and less harshness between youth and law enforcement that he hopes will be fostered by community policing.

“Kids are the key,” he said. “They’re buying. They know exactly what’s going on. They know everything.”

When drug problems arise in the schools, the sheriff said, parents and children will be informed of choices the student will given that are “part of the solution” rather than first bringing the matter to the courts. But if nothing is done, he said, “then they’ll be part of the problem.”

The once-lauded but long-dormant Alpine Tower and Therapeutic Wilderness programs for youth, designed to build character and teach trust and respect, will be revived, Doughtie said.  With the Tower, situated behind the First Flight schools, he said the goal is to build a cabin and secure a little bit of additional land to allow construction of a zipline. He also said he wants to restore the bicycle safety program.

Not negating a few rough spots, Doughtie said that the transition has gone well, his budget is “in pretty good shape,” he has a cordial relationship with the former sheriff and his staff is working hard.

Doughtie, despite his congenial attitude, seemed to be chomping at the bit.

“There’s some things coming,” he said. “There’s going to be a big difference.” 




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