As the candidates running for marshal of Richmond County walk door to door speaking to hundreds of Augusta residents prior to the May 24 election, both Marshal Steve Smith and his challenger, Lt. Ramone Lamkin of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, say they are constantly surprised by the number of people who don’t understand the duties of the marshal’s office.
“When citizens visit the public buildings and fly in and out of Augusta Regional Airport, or if, unfortunately, they are sometimes dealing some civil issues through the courts, then we come in contact with people,” said Richmond County Marshal Steve Smith. “But not everybody really realizes what we do.”
Smith, who has served as marshal in Richmond County for 28 years, said he has worked to educate the public about the role of the marshal’s office over the past decade.
“Over the last 10 years, we have really tried to improve the public’s perception of us through education, civic clubs, neighborhood associations and articles in the newspaper to kind of inform the public what we do,” Smith said. “But we still never seem to get across that threshold of people really understanding the role that we play in law enforcement.”
The marshal office’s primary responsibilities are providing court security and court services for the Civil and Magistrate Court; investigating complaints of illegal dumping, littering, inoperative or junk vehicles and the unauthorized use of a private receptacle; providing 24-hour, on-site law enforcement services to the airport; serving various lawsuits, citations, garnishments, subpoenas and carrying out court-ordered evictions, as well as bench warrants processed by the Civil and Magistrate Court; and providing buildings security for local government offices.
“When I first came to this office 28 years ago, and still today, our number one legislatively required duty is to serve Civil and Magistrate Court,” Smith said. “That’s what the law says that we have got to do. The other duties that we have been asked to do are duties such as litter enforcement and building security. And every time the Augusta Commission has asked us to take these responsibilities on, we’ve done it and done it very well.”
But, for Smith’s challenger, Ramone Lamkin, who is the head of the traffic division for the sheriff’s office, he believes if citizens don’t understand the role of your office, something is not right with that picture.
“During my campaigning, a lot of people don’t know what the marshal’s office even does and they don’t know who the marshal is. That’s sad to say, but it is true,” Lamkin said. “People know who the coroner is, but they don’t know who the marshal is.”
“Being an elected official for 28 years and if people don’t know who you are, that’s his leadership style,” said Lamkin, who has been in law enforcement for 20 years. “I’m not talking bad about him. That’s just how he wants to lead the agency, but that’s not how I want to lead the agency.”
Lamkin, who served with the Georgia State Patrol for 10 years prior to being named the head of traffic division by Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree in 2013, said he wants to reach out to the community as marshal.
“I believe if you are a public servant, you need to be visible,” Lamkin said. “I think you need to be accessible. People need to be able to call you. People need to be able to talk to you and people need to be able to bring problems to you.”
In his role as head of the traffic division, Lamkin said it has always been important for the public to be able to contact him.
“A lot of people in the neighborhoods have my cell phone number,” Lamkin said. “They can call me and talk to me about whatever issues they are having. There are so many people that when I tell them I’m running, they say, ‘We want you to win, but we are going to hate losing you at the sheriff’s office,’ because they know that they can call me and we will get their problems taken care of. But, as marshal, people will have direct access to me.”
However, Smith insists that his office works extremely hard in all of its duties and he takes great pride in the role he plays throughout the community.
“I love my job. I love being able to help people,” said Smith, who has served in local law enforcement for almost four decades. “That is probably the most rewarding part of the job is being able to help people when they are facing eviction, when they have hardship cases, when someone in the neighborhood is trying their best to keep their property value up by taking care of their property and they have a neighbor who is not doing their part. We are able to go out and help them.”
Smith said his office is dedicated to hearing people’s concerns and treating the community with the utmost respect and professionalism.
“When it comes to helping people, it doesn’t make any difference if it is a rich guy from Walton Way or a poor person from Hyde Park,” Smith said. “We try to help everybody and be fair to everybody and treat everybody the same.”
Unfortunately, there are some limitations to what the marshal’s office can achieve because of the tight budgetary constraints in the county, Smith said.
“For example, the enforcement division was first created, not as a litter division, but it was created for the purpose of catching trucks with rocks blowing off and knocking people’s windshield out,” Smith said. “But we kind of changed the responsibilities somewhat in that we’ve tried to make it more of a neighborhood-type agency that works with code enforcement to try to enforce codes in our neighborhood to try to clean them up.”
The heavy workload of the enforcement division is endless, Smith said.
“Primarily for us, it is the junk cars and illegal dumping. But the problem that we’ve got with that division is we’ve got five cars to cover the entire county, seven days a week,” Smith said. “So we don’t have a lot of time for patrol-type activity. What we do is we spend our time responding to complaints from citizens. And then of course, when we issue citations during the year for violators, that requires officers to spend time in court.
So, we can’t be as aggressive as we like just because we have a lack of personnel there.”
But Lamkin believes there are ways of getting around such financial constraints such as creating a reserves program with officer who need certification to work within the communities, he said.
“That will solve some of those manpower issues, help clean up the neighborhoods and it won’t cost the county a dime,” he said. “Let’s start talking to those people and let’s start getting those areas cleaned up for the people who live there. Because, if your community starts looking good, you start feeling good about yourself and you won’t let bad elements come in your neighborhood. We need to provide that leadership in the marshal’s office.”
When it comes to his staff, Smith says he works hard to maintain the professionalism in his office and make sure that everyone is properly trained to work with the public.
“For example, in the security division, we have been able to utilize part-time people in lieu of full-time people to save money. However, we want people who are trained. So, we are able to get retired military, retired firefighters and retired policemen and bring that experience into the department and pay them an hourly wage instead of paying a salary,” Smith said. “So we have taken advantage of that experience and used it to our benefit without paying full price for it, so we can save the taxpayers money.”
However, Lamkin said he has heard rumors of the manner in which some employees within the marshal’s office are promoted.
“One thing I want to do is change the culture over there,” Lamkin said. “I’ve had worked for some agencies that it is who you know to get promoted and some other agencies where it’s what you know and how well you do your job. I’ve heard complaints of people being promoted in the marshal’s office just because of who they know or what they can offer. But it should be based on your merits and how well you do your job and how well you know your job. It shouldn’t be who you know.”
But Smith insists that his office has always been managed in a completely professional manner and his employees, without a doubt, have earned their spots.
Smith believes it is easy for someone outside the office to call for a change in leadership during a political campaign to attract voters, but he assures the citizens of Richmond County that he runs his department by the book.
“Most of the time when there is an outcry saying, ‘It’s time for a change,’ or ‘There is a need for new leadership,’ you are dealing with policy positions, such as legislators or representatives or commissioners. But we operate by the law,” Smith said of the marshal’s office. “Those other folks make the policies and make the law and we have to follow the law. So, as marshal, you want somebody who is able to interpret the law, understand the law, and decide what to do, which doesn’t necessarily lead to having a change in leadership.”
Smith says he has an outstanding record serving Richmond County over the past 28 years.
“When people start talking about Congress or the commission, it is a policy-making position and they are governed a lot by opinion,” Smith said. “I don’t get to run my department based on opinion.”
Instead, Smith encourages the citizens of Richmond County to look at the facts.
“I think the primary factor to keep in mind in this position is experience,” Smith said. “When you start dealing with civil process and you start dealing with the issues at Augusta Regional Airport associated with federal law and an interaction with TSA and FAA, this is not knowledge known by the average officer. We are a specialized agency. We are not the sheriff’s office. We help the sheriff’s office on occasion when they need help, and they help us on occasion, but we are two totally separate and different agencies that operate independently.”
According to Lamkin, the role of the sheriff’s office and the marshal’s office aren’t that different at all.
“There is no difference between the marshal’s office and the sheriff’s office,” Lamkin said. “We all take an oath to uphold the law and the Constitution in Georgia and we all have to do that. I’m definitely ready for the job.”
But, if elected, Lamkin said Richmond County citizens will see an entirely new marshal’s office.
“Sometimes you will see citizens passing a marshal’s car on the street and they don’t slow down. They are flying past the marshal’s car,” Lamkin said. “People don’t respect them as a law enforcement officer and they are law enforcement officers. Every agency in Richmond County needs to have the same level of respect so we can get these officers back to being proactive in the neighborhoods.”
And while Lamkin says that the marshal’s office has a different role in civil process than the sheriff’s office, he says the sheriff’s office actually deals with more court procedures on a regular basis.
“The marshal’s office serves papers, that’s true enough, but that is a law enforcement job,” Lamkin said. “I think the marshal’s office is at an even higher risk than some of the sheriff’s deputies because they are doing dispossession. They are going to somebody’s house at their lowest moment and you don’t know what will happen. We need the person to be trained to handle the situation and have compassion for the people who are out there. So there has to be a fine balance.”
Smith insists his officers are well trained and ready to handle any situation.
In fact, earlier this year, Smith was appointed to the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (P.O.S.T.) by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to serve on the 20-member council.
P.O.S.T. is responsible for providing the citizens of Georgia with “qualified, professionally trained, ethical and competent peace officers and criminal justice professionals,” according to its website.
“It really is the police of the police and, for 20 years, Augusta has not had a voice on P.O.S.T Council until now,” Smith said. “I was appointed by Gov. Deal in January and now Augusta has a seat at the table. We are able to have input and let our needs and our concerns be known. I’m able to speak our case for Augusta because the issues that we deal with here are very different than what officers deal with in Atlanta.”
Along with training, Smith has been concentrating on enhancing the security in government buildings throughout the county by using modern technology.
The marshal’s office has developed a central monitoring system to eventually bring the remote surveillance of all city assets under one roof.
“It has been an idea that I’ve had for several years,” Smith said, as he walked to a work station in the marshal’s office on the seventh floor of the Municipal Building. “I think by using technology, we could do so much more than what we’ve been doing.”
Jeff Barrett, an administrator for the marshal’s office, was at the work station, which is a smaller version of the consolidated surveillance systems located at the marshal’s substation on Deans Bridge Road.
“At the substation at Deans Bridge, they have four big monitors and four or five small monitors that they can interact with that monitor the activity of people coming and going from our government buildings,” Barrett said. “For instance, here in the Municipal Building, whenever somebody opens a door, their picture pops up. And some of these doors we have associated with cameras. Like, if it is an exterior door that we want to know more about and we want to know everybody who goes in and out of certain doors, we can track people by their ID cards, by the activity of the doors and by cameras.”
The system also monitors alarms throughout the government facilities and can quickly pinpoint exactly where in a building the alarm has sounded, Barrett said.
The cameras throughout the building also produce high-resolution photos, Barrett said.
“So, we can easily identify someone’s face,” Smith said. “The check stations have audio as well, so if there is some type of verbal confrontation between our people and somebody else, and they say, ‘Your officer said this or that to me,’ we can check the audio.”
Smith says he is eager to continue to expand the monitoring system to all of the county’s parks and community centers.
“Let’s just say, if somebody decides to break into May Park and the alarm goes off in our central control station,” Smith said. “We could zoom those cameras in and we’ll see perpetrator in the office of May Park. We can then pick up the phone, call the sheriff’s office dispatch and say, ‘Hey, you have an alarm going off in May Park. You’ve got a perpetrator in the building.’ We can send the floor plan of May Park to the responding car, by his MDT (Mobile Data Terminal), and say, ‘The perpetrator is in the office.’ So the officer knows exactly where to go.”
While that technology is still a few years down the line, Smith says he wants to take the county’s security to the next level.
But Lamkin believes it is time for the marshal’s office to become more modernized under new leadership.
“An agency takes on the characteristics of its leader,” Lamkin said. “So if a leader is kind of relaxed and doesn’t interact with the public, the other people will end up doing the same thing. But if you have a leader going out and being proactive, that is going to make everyone do what they’re supposed to do.”
Lamkin thinks his enthusiasm will quickly rub off on the other officers.
“That’s what we do in the traffic division,” Lamkin said. “I’m out there 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. with my guys. Do I have to be out there? No. I’m on salary. I’m not getting paid any more money for being out there, but it is something I want to do. It’s something that I feel that I have to do because I’m not asking the guys to do anything I wouldn’t go out there and do.”
And Lamkin is getting a great deal of political support from his colleagues in the sheriff’s office during this campaign.
“Major Scott Peebles has put out a letter to everybody endorsing me and so has Lt. Lewis Blanchard,” Lamkin said, adding that he was also recently endorsed by the Augusta Firefighters Association and the CSRA chapter of the Police Benevolent Association of Georgia. “These are all people in key positions in the sheriff’s office and they see my leadership skills everyday.”
Lamkin says he is proud of the role he’s played in major community initiatives such as Operation Rolling Thunder and the HEAT Program.
“Rolling Thunder was very positive because it saved lives,” Lamkin said, adding that Richmond County had the second highest fatality rate per capita in Georgia in 2012 until he took over the traffic division. “Our fatalities went way down because we targeted areas where we had a problem and we wanted to make sure we got the drunk drivers off the roads. Now, we are not doing Rolling Thunder, but our numbers are still down because it made people wake up and think and say, ‘Hey, let me just get an Uber. Let me call a cab.’ So it was a very positive program.”
Overall, Lamkin says he is determined to continue to be a leader in the community he loves so dearly.
“A lot of people don’t know my full story. They know that I came to Augusta as a child, but they don’t know that my mother was 16 and she had three kids: me and my twin brother and an older brother,” Lamkin said. “She gave me and my twin brother up for adoption. I never met my father. I came down here and was raised by my great aunt, who was a single mother and didn’t have much at all. But we didn’t let that determine our outcome. Today, my brother is a high school principal and I’m in law enforcement.”
Lamkin says he is proud of all that he has accomplished in his life and he hopes voters will support him as marshal.
“To be able to tell kids in this community that they can do anything they want to do, that is definitely a very happy moment for me,” Lamkin said, smiling. “I’m not a politician. I will tell you things straight and I’ll be honest with you because this community is my life. I have 20 years in law enforcement and it doesn’t feel like I go to work. I love going to work every day. When I come to a point where I’m not being effective and I feel like it’s just a job, it is time for me to do something different.”
But, after almost three decades as marshal, Smith insists he still loves every minute of his job and he intends to keep it.
“This position has been a big part of my life,” Smith said. “Next to my faith and my family, it has been 28 years of my life and I love my job.”