Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil: 'Astounding how many crimes' associated with drugs

CINCINNATI -- WCPO.com sat down with Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil recently for a Q&A on a range of issues.

Neil was sworn into the job in January 2013, inheriting an office trapped in the past that is still trying to provide high-quality service to the county despite a dwindling budget.

The new administration is changing they way the office does business after nearly three decades of authoritarian leadership. Everything from favoritism in hiring to the lack of advancement that ended former Sheriff Simon Leis’ tenure, Neil is charged with turning it around.

The audit of the sheriff’s office exposed how deputies weren't getting enough training, opportunities for advancement, and a records division still using pen and paper.

1. How long have you served at the Sheriff’s office, as a law enforcement officer?

I was hired into the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office in 1981 in the Jail Division. I spent the next 30 years working in various positions throughout the office. I retired in 2011 to run for office, and was sworn in as sheriff in January 2013.

2. What other jobs have you had in the past? Which agencies, units?

I started out in the jail division at the old Cincinnati workhouse. The workhouse was a unique place in that it was more like a Civil War-era prison than what we think of as a jail or corrections center today. At the workhouse, I worked several security posts both inside and along the exterior, and was an instructor for the jail academy. 

After six years, I transferred out to patrol. During my time on patrol, I ran a beat for several years before being promoted to corporal. As a corporal, I served in traffic safety, was a D.A.R.E. Officer and became a bomb squad technician. I was again promoted to sergeant, and became the bomb squad commander. Eventually, I was promoted to lieutenant, wearing several hats as watch commander, detail coordinator, continued as the bomb squad commander, and served as the patrol academy commander.

I retired in August 2011, at which time I became a short-term substitute teacher for the Three Rivers School District. I filled in over the next two and a half years, often in the special need classrooms, until I took office as sheriff. After dealing with criminals for 30 years, it was a joy to come to work each day and have the opportunity to teach elementary students, who are our future.

3. What do you do on a day-to-day basis? What are the responsibilities of your job?

I wake up early each morning to work out and get my cup of coffee. My day is filled with administrative responsibilities, which include overseeing the operations, logistics, budget and training within the office to ensure we sustain and are improving upon our services in policing and public safety, in the jail and in the courts.

I also maintain my certifications and remain as a bomb technician. I have several meetings with individuals and groups from both the public and private sector, always looking for ideas on how we can do a better job or partner with someone else to make us more efficient. I attend community meetings to stay in touch with the citizens and hear firsthand what is going on in their neighborhoods and how we can help.

I enjoy volunteering and donating my time at my church (St. Al’s on the Ohio) and still play softball once a week when my schedule permits in the “Old Timers” league. Last but certainly not least, I spend time with my wife who I love dearly, with family and friends, and have been babysitting more often.

4. What is your vision for the sheriff’s office?

The mission of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office is to maintain the public peace and protect the lives and property of all Hamilton County citizens.

The Sheriff’s Office is dedicated to provide professional and equitable criminal justice services to all citizens and strive to execute all responsibilities of the Sheriff’s Office through excellence. My vision is that we remain committed through the formation of alliances and utilization of our resources to provide expected quality law enforcement, court and jail services, countywide and throughout our regional area of influence. 

By forming alliances, we are more efficient and effective at provided top notch service to the people.

5. Do you plan on any big changes?

The changes we’ve seen in the past were a result of our budget being cut from $79 million to $59 million. We had been in survival mode, trying to make do. 

Since I came into office, my goal has been to thrive, not just survive, even with a greatly reduced budget. We’ve managed to close the “revolving door” at the jail, keeping criminals locked up until they face the judge. We’ve consolidated eight divisions down to three to help streamline our operation.

We’re making training a priority and are committed to upgrading technology, which will eliminate duplication and make us better at what we do.

6. What are the top three crime concerns that come across your desk?

Drugs! Drugs! Drugs! Narcotics, specifically with the heroin epidemic, are obviously a huge problem. Trafficking and abuse of drugs is a problem. Property crimes and theft to support drug abuse is on the rise.  Also, crimes of violence related to drug trafficking. It is astounding how many crimes are directly or indirectly associated with drugs.

7. How is the department working to eliminate those concerns or improve the situations?

We are partnering with other agencies in the region to form task force to deal with the epidemic since we’re dealing with the same problems.  Our regional narcotics unit is working hard to aggressively go after suppliers, and we want to reinstate our street corner unit to go after the users. We have partnered with human services agencies to help with treatment to combat the addictions, as well as the re-entry program to cut down on recidivism to keep criminals from returning back to the jail.

8. What are some of the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned?

Leadership is about doing the right thing, even if it’s not the most popular. The lesson I’ve learned is that you must always remain proactive and be looking forward. They say if you’re not moving forward you’re moving backwards. You can’t go into neutral and let up on the gas. 

Stick to your vision, set long-term goals about where you want the office to be, and be persistent.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil pictured at the county justice center, Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Cincinnati. Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO

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9. What’s the best way to handle change at work?

Changing the culture of the organization is one of the most difficult things I’m trying to accomplish. People were taught how to think and respond to things a certain way for 25-plus years. I have a different approach and way of doing things. I want people to think for themselves, be creative and offer their ideas. Some of the best ideas come from the bottom up. It doesn’t have to always be from the top down. 

So, I try to lead by example, and am not afraid to do anything I’m asking the men and women working under me to do. Also, training helps make sure we’re on the same page across all divisions.

10. What would your super power be?

I don’t know that it’s a super power, but I’ve studied and read a lot about history, particularly of the American Indians. Sam Houston, who fought at the Alamo, was a brave man and leader. It was said that Sam’s wife kept seeing a hawk fly overhead and told Sam it was a sign that he was destined for something more. During my time campaigning, a red-tailed hawk must have lived by our house because we kept seeing it fly over. My wife reminded me of Sam Houston’s story and encouraged me when many didn’t give me much of a chance to win the election.

So, I guess the hawk would be something I associate with which gives me strength and hope for the future.

11. What is your earliest memory working in law enforcement?

My first day at the old Workhouse was an eye-opening experience. Others who worked there can tell you that you had a brief orientation for a few hours before they gave you a uniform, threw you keys to the cells, told you what cell block to report to, and said good luck! Talk about trial by fire!

12. What is your greatest fear?

Fear can be a great motivator. I’m motivated to never let myself become a self-serving politician and remain true to our mission, my vision and focused on the good of the Sheriff’s Office as a whole and serving the people of Hamilton County.

13. What made you want to become a police officer?

I grew up in the police subculture where my father was a great role model for me having served a distinguished career in the Cincinnati Police Department. We came from a working-class family, and growing up seeing how my dad handled himself and treated others both in uniform but also in general was important.

Many of us from my neighborhood went on to work as public servants as police, firefighters, teachers and other professions.

14. What is your most memorable moment and why?

On a personal level, my most memorable moment was meeting my wife on a blind date. I’ll never forget it. 

Professionally, I remember tracking and catching burglars. We all excel in certain things, and I always had a sense of accomplishment when I would take on the challenge of solving how a crime was committed, and then how we could find the individual responsible.

I’ve tracked guys through woods and snow and mud for great distances, finding them hiding in dumpsters or wherever. They’re shocked when I’m able to locate them.

Heck, I tracked a car which was leaking fluids from the scene in Colerain all the way up to Hamilton, Ohio one time.  Solving crimes and apprehending the suspects is at the core of being a cop, which for some of us is just in our blood I suppose.

More about Sheriff Jim Neil

Age:  55

Experience: 30-year Career in various positions throughout the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office before being elected Sheriff in 2012

Hometown:  Cincinnati, Ohio

Education
• Master’s Degree (Graduate Studies and Research Criminal Justice) – University of Cincinnati
• Bachelor’s Degree (Criminal Justice) – University of Cincinnati
• Graduated from Northwestern University in Chicago’s School of Police Staff & Command
• Completed more than 4,000 hours of job training and education through the Sheriff’s Office over my career

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