Testing the Sheriff Article | Foothills Forum
‘Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It.’
Rappahannock native Connie Compton leads law enforcement in a ‘small town’ county
A Rapp News/Foothills Forum Special Report
At the tender age of seven, Connie Compton was already riding around in a patrol car. Not one of the cruisers you see on the roads of Rappahannock County, but a little blue pedal police car.
“I had the police car, and my brother had the fire truck,” she said. “We had a long driveway, and we’d go up and down it play-acting cops and firefighters, complete with making siren sounds.”
That was the beginning of Sheriff Connie S.Compton’s storied career in law enforcement. Now, at age 53, the popular four-term sheriff heads the county’s largest public safety agency, overseeing a staff of 23 sworn officers and civilians and an annual budget just shy of $2 million, all toiling amid heightened scrutiny of the role of police in U.S. communities.
Born into a family with deep Rappahannock roots, Compton was the youngest of 10 children. “We lived in a house in Castleton just behind the Laurel Mills Store,” she recalled. “Growing up here was idyllic, with lots of friends and family. All of us attended Rappahannock schools.”
It was Career Day in 1985 at the high school when Compton decided to go into law enforcement.
“I met a female state trooper and knew then and there I wanted to go into law enforcement. When I graduated in 1985, I didn’t have the money to go to college,” she said. So eventually she started work in 1988 at the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office (RCSO) as a communications and corrections officer.
Climbing the ladder
On a wall in Compton’s office hangs a sign: “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It.”
Within two years after joining the force, she was promoted to patrol deputy, the first woman to hold that position in Rappahannock County. In 2001, she was promoted to sergeant and in 2003 to lieutenant.
In 2007, she was elected sheriff in a three-way race, garnering 47 percent of the vote. Compton was re-elected in 2011 with 79 percent of the vote and again in 2015 with 72 percent. She ran unopposed in 2019, receiving 97 percent of all ballots cast. Altogether, she has more than 30 years of service at RCSO, 13 of them as sheriff. Of the 123 elected sheriffs in Virginia, Compton is one of eight women who hold that office; she ranks 27th in seniority.
“It was difficult moving up through the ranks. Being the first female deputy on the force, I had to overcome many obstacles,” she said. “At one point it was so uncomfortable, I felt I couldn’t do anything right even though I was handling calls for service, arresting more DUIs, and making more arrests than other deputies. I was so frustrated I thought of leaving the force and becoming a firefighter. But I decided to stay on.
“When Gary Settle became sheriff,” she said, “he recognized my hard work and helped shape me for the position I now am so honored to hold. I was proud to serve under a man of his caliber.” Settle went on to become Virginia State Police Superintendent.
‘Small town’ county
Growing up in Rappahannock gives Compton a window into the community that sheriffs in large jurisdictions often don’t have. She has a personal style that combines an authentic ‘down-home’ friendliness with a no-nonsense approach to law enforcement.
“I love our small community,” she said. “Its size provides a special opportunity to get to know people and build trust and a level of sensitivity as to how we do our jobs. Having that trust between the sheriff’s office and the citizens is key in community policing.”
“There are people out in the world today that don’t trust law enforcement. I don’t think we have that here. We don’t have many complaints about our deputies. No one is perfect, but I certainly won’t tolerate any inappropriate behavior on the force.”
Given the national discussion about policing, Foothills Forum asked Sheriff Compton about race and the county’s law enforcement practices. She said her office has never received a complaint about racial profiling. Compton said citizen complaints typically have been for things like officers not being sufficiently polite when writing a ticket or driving too fast when responding to a call. Under Virginia law, citizen complaints are considered personnel files and are exempt under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Compton stated that she and her deputies have discussed racial bias in policing in the past years as part of a continuing “cultural diversity” training program. She declined to comment on the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, convicted Tuesday on three counts of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd.
The Rappahannock News has submitted a FOIA request to the Virginia State Police to obtain records subject to the Community Policing Act of 2020 to evaluate county traffic stop data. The News will report the findings if it is successful in obtaining the data.
Compton described the community as a big family and occasionally that leads to citizens wanting favors for minor infractions. “No sir. We have a job to do,” she said. “I was elected to enforce the law. That’s what we get paid to do.”
A small community also allows RCSO to provide services with a “personal touch.” Seniors who live alone can register on a checklist to be called daily. Residents who go on vacation can have their homes checked by a deputy. Commercial buildings are periodically checked. Accidental 911 calls are always followed up with a visit just to make sure the call was a mistake.
“We have a lot of elderly folks living here, many of them alone,” said Compton. “If we don’t hear from the folks who signed up on the call list every day by 11 a.m., we’ll call them, or if need be, send a deputy to check on them. We’ve found people who have fallen, broken a hip or had other trouble.”
On occasion, the sheriff herself will pick up the phone to check on people’s well-being. Compton also lectures before community groups about public safety practices or the latest consumer and internet scams, especially those targeting the county’s senior citizens.
Other community programs are sponsored by RCSO through the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Children’s Foundation (RCSCF), a nonprofit funded by individual donations and fundraising events. Programs include:
The long-running “Shop with a Deputy” during the Christmas season, where deputies take kids shopping for gifts and a visit with Santa.
The Jingle Bell 5K walk/run which raises funds for the RCSCF.
Sponsorship of Camp Fantastic, a week-long camp for kids with cancer at the 4-H Center in Front Royal.
Donations of school supplies and backpacks, as well as various coaching and athletic activities.
Compton particularly enjoys coaching kids’ softball, a sport at which she excelled during her school years. Soon the RCSO will implement “Project Lifesaver,” a voluntary program that can track individuals with Alzheimer’s or other dementia-related illnesses should they become lost.
Unlike sheriff’s offices in more populous counties, RCSO officers often find themselves doing multiple tasks. “Everyone does a little bit of everything and we get paid a lot less money than those in other jurisdictions who only have one job,” said Compton. “Our communications staff takes 911 calls, makes the dispatches, does criminal background checks, record filing, and answers general inquires. In other sheriff’s offices, there is a person for each of those jobs.”
“We are stretched thin,” she said. “If one deputy on patrol at night needs backup, and many times they do, the other deputy has to respond. If another call or two comes in from across the county at the same time, things can get really dicey. It’s not easy to be in two places at once.”
In serious cases, Compton may call deputies at home or seek assistance from law enforcement in a neighboring jurisdiction as she did with the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office during a high-speed chase into that county several months ago.
Teamwork helps manage the workload. “The sheriff has built a tight-knit family here,” said Lt. Janie Jenkins, division commander of RCSO’s communication center. “There’s the old saying, ‘money isn’t everything’ and when the chips are down or one of us needs help, we pitch in for each other.”
‘Empty’ guns kill people
Last year, when Rappahannock and other Virginia county supervisors were passing resolutions to designate their communities as “Second Amendment Sanctuaries,” Compton issued a statement that broadly supported the action, saying she believed a message needed to be sent to Richmond that citizens will take a stance on gun rights. “My deputies and I take an oath to uphold the Constitution and that is what we will do,” she said.
But Compton strongly believes that with gun ownership comes a high level of responsibility. Over the course of her career, she has seen a number of gun-related accidents, including one that tragically struck her family when she was four years old.
“It was Christmas in 1972. Our extended family was gathered at my grandmother’s house and one of my older cousins had received a gun as a present,” she recalled. “As he was showing it to my brothers, he didn’t realize there was a bullet in the chamber. His finger was on the trigger. As my 15-year-old sister was walking toward me the gun went off and killed her. I remember everything that happened that night like it was yesterday. We are all still living with that horrible memory.
“‘Empty’ guns kill people, so goes the saying. I’m a firm believer in firearms training and that includes learning how to shoot responsibly. People need to know how to handle and fire a weapon before carrying it. And for a concealed weapons permit, people should attend class in person, not on a computer.”
When asked to name her greatest accomplishment, Compton paused. “It’s always hard to talk about yourself,” she said. “I try and stay humble. In a small jurisdiction like Rappahannock, the people that put you here, the people you serve, they have to trust you and you have to earn their trust. So, I have to say my greatest accomplishment is being able to serve the citizens of Rappahannock County in a way that promotes that trust.”
Compton said she is planning to run again in 2023. “Of course I’m going to run again. I greatly enjoy my law enforcement work as well as participating in our community programs,” she said.
Perhaps that’s why Compton’s fond of quoting her favorite action hero, Wonder Woman: “I fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.”
Department is smaller than neighboring agencies
By Bob Hurley — For Foothills Forum
In fiscal year 2021, Rappahannock County budgeted $1,945,984 for the Sheriff’s Office, about 7.3 percent of the county’s overall budget. The cost covers 14 sworn officers, two court bailiffs, and nine communications staffers who handle general inquiries, 911 calls, and dispatch operations. The budget also includes 16 patrol vehicles, office equipment and supplies.
The RCSO force is smaller when compared with several neighboring counties. On a per capita basis there is one sworn officer per 455 residents. A sworn officer is vested with full law enforcement powers and authority. By comparison, neighboring Warren County has one sworn officer for 360 residents; this includes officers from the Front Royal Police Department.
Base starting pay for a new deputy is $34,474, an amount set by the State Compensation Board. However, RCSO often hires new deputies in the $36,000 to $38,000 range, relying on county funds to cover the difference. By comparison Warren County pays its newly hired deputies $42,406 annually.
Deputies receive their law enforcement training at the Skyline Regional Criminal Justice Academy in Middleton, Va., which includes required continuing education and recertification every two years through the academy’s Police One program. The program covers anti-bias, civil rights, cultural awareness, community policing and responding to emotional or mental health situations. Officers are also trained to administer roadside sobriety tests, radar speed measurements, and doses of NARCAN, used to counteract the life-threatening effects of an opioid overdose.
Deputies and civilian staff work 12-hour shifts that usually change at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. To ensure staffers get every other weekend off, shifts alternate two or three days a week with two days off in between. During the day shift there is usually one patrol deputy on duty and at night two patrol deputies. On weekends, two patrol deputies and a supervisor work the night shift.
Meet the Sheriff’s Office
Here are the people behind the badges • Compiled by Bob Hurley • Photos by Luke Christopher for Foothills Forum
Sheriff – Connie Compton
Major/Deputy Sheriff – Roger Jenkins
Time on job: 25 years.
Best part: I’m proud to have worked here my entire career and with our current Sheriff during that time. It is an honor to work in the county where I have lived all my life and to serve all of the people.
Biggest challenge: Keeping officers here at our office. Being a small department, when an officer leaves, it becomes an immediate and urgent situation. Pulling officers from one shift to another cuts law enforcement coverage across the board. Keeping up with officers’ training hours and certifications in their fields is also challenging. Our main goal is to serve the people and be able to go home to our families at the end of our shifts
Captain/Investigator – Jim Jones
Time on job: Five years.
Best part: Being able to help victims of crime, accidents and domestic violence and making a positive impact on our community.
Biggest challenge: Knowing and keeping up with the new laws of the Commonwealth (of Virginia).
Lieutenant/Patrol Supervisor – M. Cody Dodson
Time on job: 11 years.
Best part: Helping the people of Rappahannock County where I was raised. I train and mentor new law enforcement officers. Watching them grow and put together everything they learned at the academy and in the field is very rewarding.
Biggest challenge: The fast-changing environment and keeping up with new laws being passed every year can be very stressful and time-consuming. At the supervisor level, it is never easy managing a group of people you work with day in and day out, especially when you have formed a bond of trust with each other. Going out on the road and handling calls with the deputies has made it easier to do that. They know you’re not sitting behind a desk second-guessing each decision they make.
Janie Jenkins/Division Commander, Communications Center
Time on job: 18 years.
Best part: I love teamwork and the ability to help those who need it. No matter how large or small (the matter), helping is so rewarding.
Biggest challenge: Cell service. At times callers are 15 to 20 minutes past the emergency before they are able to connect with us.
Jason M. Bates
Time on job: 14 months.
Best part: Having to multitask and make split-second decisions that ultimately affect someone. Feeling rewarded when you help someone in need. Getting out and talking to the citizens of the county.
Biggest challenge: Dealing with the evolving perception of law enforcement. I try to show everyone we are human. … We are sons, fathers, daughters and mothers trying to provide for and enjoy a happy life like everyone else.
Time on job: 24 years.
Best part: Working with Rappahannock County High School staff to provide a safe environment and forming positive relationships with the students.
Biggest challenge: Helping students learn from their mistakes so they can make better choices in the future.
Robert Lee Fincham, Jr.
Time on job: 22 years.
Best part: Interacting with students at Rappahannock County Elementary School as a School Resource Officer.
Biggest challenge: COVID-19 restrictions that limit interactions with people at our annual Sheriff’s Office events such as DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) Day and Shop with a Deputy.
Time on job: Nine years.
Best part: Community policing and helping the citizens of our county.
Biggest challenge: Being a target and the negative public perception of law enforcement.
David M. Meade
Time on job: Three years.
Best part: Protecting and serving.
Biggest challenge: Dealing with the negativity from the public toward law enforcement.
Time on job: 3.5 years.
Best part: As a lifelong resident of Rappahannock County, I like interacting with many of the legendary ‘old-timers’ here. As Paul Harvey said, they give you the rest of the story.
Biggest challenge: The perception of law enforcement today. This is a different ballgame now from when I first worked as a deputy for a year in 1988. I fear for the future recruitment of law enforcement officers.
W. Chris Ubben
Time on job: 14 years.
Best part: As a School Resource Officer, my interactions with children. Being able to show them that “cops are good, well-intentioned people who want to help them” and not “take them to jail” like some parents have told them.
Biggest challenge: Sufficient staffing to be able to maintain the needed number of deputies on all shifts to meet the needs of our citizens. With the aggressions shown towards law enforcement and for officer safety, we need positions added to make sure two deputies are able to respond to service calls and traffic stops.
Deputy and Communications Officer – Logan Davis
Time on job: One year, eight months.
Best part: Getting to help and speak with the citizens of Rappahannock County on their worst days.
Biggest challenge: Not every day is the same. There is always a new way to carry out your duties, and how you can help every single caller.
Time on job: 11 months.
Best part: I enjoy the work environment and the ability to maintain a close connection with my community.
Biggest challenge: Learning to separate myself from emergency calls, especially when they come from people I know and love.
Time on job: Two and half years.
Best part: The unpredictability and being able to help people.
Biggest challenge: There is only so much we can do from this side of the headset. Not being able to do more is sometimes hard.
Deputy/Communications Officer Donna Kestner
Time on job: 13 years.
Best part: Being a voice of calm in harrowing situations. Knowing that your work serves a greater good.
Biggest challenge: As a deputy, public perception of law enforcement, officers being a target, and combating the drug epidemic. As a communications officer, lack of mental health support (for callers), thinking about the skills, knowledge and experience needed to master each component of the job, and a lack of closure on some of the calls.
Vicki Jenkins Miller
Time on job: Four years.
Best part: Helping people any way I can. Speaking to our amazing seniors. They bring me so much joy.
Biggest challenge: When the outcome unfolds during a call you need to set that in the back of your mind, complete the call to the best of your ability and process it emotionally later.
Time on job: Three months.
Best part: Being there for people in their time of need. Working alongside officers and first responders to make the community a safer place.
Biggest challenge: As a first responder in my free time, not being able to be on the scene to physically help others.
Time on job: 37 years.
Best part: Sending help to those in need.
Biggest challenge: Not all calls or complaints have happy endings.
Time on job: Four years.
Best part: Making a difference in someone’s day.
Biggest challenge: There are calls you take home with you, replay, and think of what you may have done differently.
Time on job: Three weeks.
Best part: I am still in training. I took this position so I could be more involved and give back to the community. I feel this is a job I can be proud of and look forward to learning all I can.
State funding influences size of force
The Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office is a small team. But while adding more officers would be nice, budget constraints stand in the way. And to a certain degree, the number of deputies Sheriff Connie Compton can afford is limited by the state’s contribution to her budget.
“The state Compensation Board tells us how many deputies we will have,” she said, somewhat figuratively. The amount of the state contribution has risen modestly in recent years and in the current fiscal year accounts for roughly a third of Compton’s budget for office salaries and benefits.
— Patty Hardee
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