From implementing needed repairs and maintenance at the Portage County Justice Center to forming a new SWAT Team, Sheriff Bruce Zuchowski’s first year in office has been a busy one.
“What we basically did, and we feel pretty proud about this, is we really professionalized our agency,” said Chief Deputy Ralph Spidalieri.
Zuchowski was elected in November 2020 and began his new job at the start of 2021. He had previously been with the Ohio State Highway Patrol for 25 years before retiring in 2017. More recently, he was a special and then part-time deputy with the sheriff’s office before running for the top job.
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He has said that he had no intention of being simply a caretaker at the sheriff’s office, but had a long list of improvements he wanted to make.
Advancing law enforcement efforts
For starters, Zuchowski said he wanted to form a SWAT Team to replace the county’s dependence on Metro SWAT, which is composed of members from a number of different law enforcement agencies in multiple counties.
Part of this has to do with the amount of time it can take for Metro SWAT, which is based out of Summit County, to respond in Portage. Another factor, Spidalieri said, was cost. It cost the county more than $18,000 a year to be a part of Metro SWAT and the sheriff’s office had to pay a Portage deputy to serve on the team, which could take him or her out of the county.
The sheriff’s SWAT team was formed last year following an extensive selection and training process and now has 16 members. The team is expected to be operational in early February.
“We brought this in-house so that we have now where every shift has anywhere between, you know, four to five members of the SWAT team,” Spidalieri said. “So, God forbid something were to happen, we have four to five people that would immediately be able to activate and be able to begin to control a scene and render security while the other units are started, contacted to start to head our way.”
Spidalieri said the SWAT team could increase in size and would be available to respond to incidents in parts of the county not policed by the sheriff’s office and other law enforcement agencies have expressed an interest in taking part in it.
The SWAT team is not the only new law enforcement unit within the sheriff’s office. PACE, or the Portage Aggressive Crime Enforcement Unit, is made up of a couple of K-9s and two or three deputies that focuses on complaints the sheriff’s office receives of drugs or crimes of violence.
PACE often works with the new drug and violent crime unit, which handles investigations, sometimes leading to raids and arrests.
“It’s all an undercover drug unit,” Spidalieri said.
Although not an internal unit, the sheriff’s office is also now a part of a joint human trafficking task force that also includes the Summit and Stark county sheriff’s offices and other regional and law enforcement agencies.
“We’re working this as a collaborative with the state attorney general’s office,” Zuchowski said.
Spidalieri said the cooperative effort has resulted in about 60 prostitution-related arrests in four sting operations within Portage County, both people attempting to hire prostitutes and people engaging in it. However, the focus with the latter group is not so much punishment, but helping them by connecting them with medical personnel, social workers and drug counselors. Spidalieri said that many of those engaged in prostitution are suffering from drug addictions, which is often why they are engaged in prostitution.
“We give people an opportunity to avoid arrests,” he said. “We give people a chance to get some help.”
The sheriff’s office has also worked to straighten out the monitoring of sexual offenders within the county. A sheriff’s detective worked with the U.S. Marshals Service over a period of about six months last year to visit the approximately 170 registered sex offenders to determine if they were actually living in the homes they are registered in and that all information in the county’s registry was accurate.
“They were able to track down a lot of people that it hadn’t been known even their whereabouts,” Zuchowski said. “One of them was in Florida or North Carolina or something and they said that they were still in Portage County. And they hadn’t been checked on in over three years.”
Spidalieri said he believes there were as many as 10 indictments resulting from the effort of sexual offenders who had not complied with legal registration requirements.
“We pretty much made contact with every single person that’s on that list,” he said “And monitor them pretty much on a daily basis, weekly basis, monthly basis, all dependent upon what they’re required to have to notify.”
And finally, the sheriff’s office has formed a new traffic division.
“What we’ve done is we’ve tried to focus on a lot of the traffic complaints in the school zones, building awareness, working with all the municipalities in the county to assist them also in establishing safer schools programs for their school zones,“ Spidalieri said.
He added that the division also investigates traffic complaints in general, as well as areas that have had crashes to determine what the contributing factors were and to get more deputies on patrol to monitor those areas.
Zuchowski said an important part of his mission is to have deputies on patrol to be more proactive.
“You don’t just see the state patrol blue lights on,” he said. “Now you’re seeing the red and white lights which are ours.”
He said he is encouraging deputies to make more traffic stops, not mainly to write tickets, but as a way to encourage safer driving.
“We’re just being proactive as far as stopping people for minor traffic infractions to where not only are you teaching that person that you’re sopping, writing a warning or whatever it would be to correct their behavior, but also allowing other people to see, you know, the other 30 cars that drive by during a traffic stop, that we are out there, we’re actively doing our jobs and we’re enforcing the laws. And I’ve gotten a lot of positive remarks from people that I see.”
The sheriff’s office has also taken steps to improve operations in general, including increasing staffing.
Additional deputies have been added in the past year, resulting in adding a deputy to each 12-hour shift, bringing the total to between six tand eight, increasing the size of the detective bureau by two detectives and including two detectives within the drug and violent crime unit.
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“We’re still not where we probably should be to be able to serve at the highest level but it has definitely improved,” Spidalieri said.
Training for deputies and corrections officers has also increased, both in the amount of time spent training and in the number of subject areas.
“We did training in crisis intervention, we’ve done training in crimes against children, we’ve done training in human trafficking, we’ve done training in drug interdiction. We’ve done a lot of training on how to handle, you know, overdoses, dealing with the families,” Spidalieri said.
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He said there is also a new program in which patrol personnel have rotated in and out of the detective bureau to improve their ability in taking reports, following up on incidents and assisting with investigations.
“So across the board, you know, just a lot of of current trends in crime and services that we’re out there providing,” Spidalieri said.
Thera have also been staffing increases among four-legged personnel with the addition last year of a third K-9.
“With the new K-9, we made the largest seizure in the county’s history, over $150,000 in cash and there was over 50 pounds of marijuana and also cocaine,” Spidalieri said.
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He said that K-9s are now trained locally. Rather than sending the dogs and their handlers to another part of the state, training is now done at Excel K-9 in Hiram. In the past, training was primarily in “suspect control and management,” said Spidalieri, with drug interdiction also a big part of it. But now an emphasis has also been placed on tracking, but not just of criminals.
“If we have a lost child, because of the areas that we have, a lot of rural areas, you know,” he said. “There’s a situation where somebody with Alzheimer’s goes missing, the dogs now have the ability of being able to get on a track and we train heavily on that. Because we know that, especially in Ohio with, you know, the bad weather, time is life.”
Zuchowski said there is yet another role for the dogs.
“It’s not just about the law side of it,” he said. “There’s also the PR side of people that like to come up and pet the dogs and see what they’re able to do.
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Equipment purchases were also made last year. Vehicles, some with as much as 200,000 miles on them, were replaced, as well as radios with a new generation.
“The [older] ones were non-serviceable and obsolete,” Spidalieri said.
Buying the new radios, however did not solve a transmission problem, with some parts of the county where “transmission is zero,” Zuchowski said. He said the issue involves the towers, not the radios. Use of three towers is leased from the state’s Multi-Agency Radio Communication System, which provide inadequate coverage. But an effort is in the works to fix the problem in 2022, which Zuchowski said the Portage Emergency Management Agency is helping with.
“Maybe an additional tower or maybe a booster tower,” he said “There may be a movement of a tower to another location. That’s something that will be done through MARCS.”
And early on in Zuchowski’s tenure, a program to just generally spruce up the sheriff’s justice center facility was undertaken, including painting, repairs to floors and new office furniture. Spidalieri said a big issue that was rectified is that some door locks in the jail weren’t securing properly, making escapes more of a risk.
Zuchowski said carpeting was replaced after it was discovered it had not even been cleaned since it was installed in 1994.
“So it was disgusting, to say the least,” he said.
Increasing community engagement
Spidalieri said the sheriff’s office has worked to increase transparency and communications.
“For one thing, we’ve definitely created a strong social media platform to basically make residents aware of scams, make residents aware of troubled areas and anything in that nature,” he said.
Various programs have also been started to give residents a look inside the sheriff’s office, such as ride-alongs, as well as tours of the county jail in January.
Last year, the sheriff’s office started a citizens police academy to provide free multi-week sessions for residents to learn how law enforcement in general and the sheriff’s office in particular does its job. Two sessions were held last year and a third is planned for the spring, with space typically filling up fast.
“Every person that’s graduated has commented how they thought they had understanding, even someone with a law enforcement background, and they had no idea how multifaceted the sheriff’s office was,” Zuchowski said.
The sheriff’s office has also increased the efficiency of its concealed carry permitting office, including going full time from part time, improving safety measures so the office could reopen following a shutdown due to COVID and creating “Walk-In Wednesday,” one day in the week when people could come in without an appointment.
“We became convenient to the residents,” Spidalieri said.
Last year, the sheriff’s office was able to increase the pay of personnel, which came out of a salary study comparing pay in Portage County to that of sheriff’s offices in other counties. Zuchowski and Spidalieri said this in particular has had an enormous impact on morale.
“We worked with the [county] commissioners to reach an agreement of trying to assist our guys to just be able to make a salary that was just comparable to what was out there,” said Spidalieri, adding “Our guys were very, very underpaid.”
But improving morale also encompassed just recognizing employees for the good work they do. In December, at the office’s Christmas party, an award and recognition program took place for the first time.
“We have good people here and a lot of them for some reason were just never really acknowledged for some of the above and beyond things that they do here,” said Zuchowski, adding that this recognition makes employees want to do better.
Spidalieri said that other actions, such as adding personnel and replacing vehicles and radios, have had a positive impact on how staff feel about their jobs. He said he also credits Zuchowski’s management in general.
“Our employees are not a number,” he said. “Our employees are people and we we deal with them on a one-on-one basis.”
Spidalieri said the sheriff’s office has had a very good year in 2021 and he says the reasons for that are multi-faceted.
“We brought accountability, a high level of integrity, and just professionalism to the agency here,” he said. “But more than even that, we have totally reached out with a partnership with our residents that we serve and the other agencies in this county and our goal is to just continue to improve service.”
Reporter Jeff Saunders can be reached at email@example.com.