A Changing of the Guard

A feature story by gozarks.com editor, Christine Louise Weiss

The duty at hand for newly elected Van Buren County Sheriff, Russell Pridgen, is controlling traffic. 

Above: Van Buren County Sheriff, Russell Pridgen, tends one of the many significant duties of his new role.

But it's not highway congestion and it has nothing to do with drugs. The traffic Pridgen strives to organize now is the influx of people, tasks, and vehicles that must be coordinated in, through and around the extensive  compound and roughly 50 employees he oversees.  

Located south of Clinton, off a service road running east from U.S. Hwy 65, the building over which Pridgen presides houses three separate yet significantly related facilities. The Municipal Court, the Detention Center -- commonly referred to as the jail -- and the Sheriff's Office. 

Above (L-R): Rick Kelso, Judicial Officer of Van Buren County, and Harold Young, VBC Jail Administrator, outside  the freshly re-painted entry to the multi-use law enforcement complex. 

On a typical day, officers need to check-in, file reports, and process arrests. Administrative staff needs space to handle paperwork, answer phones and liaison with members of the public. Jail personnel needs space to house and feed detainees, keep records and oversee visitation. Judges, lawyers, witnesses, and a long list of others routinely arrive and depart. And everybody has to park.

It was, at times, claustrophobic and confusing. So Pridgen is implementing change.

"What we're going for is a structured law enforcement atmosphere," he said, elaborating on the scope of changes now underway.

"Patrol parking will be in the back, adjacent to where we’ve set-up the new Patrol Command Center," Pridgen said. He explained that, as things had worked previously, patrol officers had to share workspace with administrative personnel in the midst of continuous public intrusion. Now relocated – though still not quite up to Pridgen’s ideal – the new Patrol Command Center gives officers something they dearly deserve: A ‘’wanderer free’’ environment.

"Administrative parking will be in that area." Pridgen motioned to the south side of the building. "This area, where the Patrol Officers used to work," he referenced a room in the process of being completely repainted, "is being converted to an Administrative Lobby."

Above: Jay Hagans, Corporal with Arkansas Department of Fish and Game, meets with Sheriff Pridgen in the freshly reorganized and repainted Administrative Lobby.

"This front parking lot will be just for citizens, the court and visitors." the Sheriff’s proud tour continued. "So they won't have to park in that gravel lot across the street anymore."

Above: Donald Hickman, an Arkansas Department of Corrections 309 detainee, has been assisting with the repainting work.

But the changes go far deeper than re-routing traffic, reorganizing office space, and splashing a fresh coat of paint on the walls. In his quest to better serve all community members and at the same time enhance the delivery of quality law enforcement services, the transition Pridgen has implemented changes procedures from the inside, out.

Above: Redessa Graham is the Van Buren County Sheriff's Department Office Manger.

Report forms have been standardized and document retrieval systems are being revamped to make public access of records easier and more efficient. 

And then, there's the way the whole operation is run.

"We're delegating responsibilities and defining the ranks," Pridgen explained.  "Making it clear what each position is, what each rank symbolizes and what duty it entails. And with the people who hold rank, they will be out on the street, in uniform. We're getting away from the 'good ol boy' look. We're showing our professionalism."

Above: Sheriff Pridgen's Chief Deputy, Jerry Davis.

And, said Pridgen, this top-to-bottom changing of the guard has been very well received by all those caught in its throes.

"It's been a real blessing working with Sheriff-Major Walker." Pridgen lauded praise on his immediate predecessor.

Above: Major Billy Walker, Patrol Commander, is now in charge of the VBC Sheriff's Department Patrol Command Center.

Walker served briefly as VBC Sheriff last year after former Sheriff, Mike Bridges, who was defeated by Pridgen in the Primary election last May, resigned. 

Walker now wears the official title of Patrol Commander and handles the 24/7 scheduling of all patrol shift rotations, court duty rosters, and officer training programs for the eleven VBC Sheriff's Deputies.  

"He has really helped out a bunch." Pridgen continued complimenting Walker. "The transition has been really smooth. And the new organizational structure is really coming into play."

Frosting this cake, Pridgen has made it a primary goal to strengthened the capabilities of his work force by better equipping them to do the tasks at hand. For starters, he has just added 2 semi-new, fully equipped and very low mileage Patrol Cars to the VBC Cruisers fleet. "It was like we got two for the price of one," Pridgen said of the acquisition.

Also, Pridgen is in the process of equipping Patrol Officers with laptop computers. "With a laptop right in their vehicle, they can fill-out the actual report on the scene. Then when they get back to the office, we just print it and file it.'' This, said Pridgen, will save hundreds of worker-hours. And, he added, that because he's getting ''used but still up-to-date'' technology, the cost of this upgrade will quickly pay for itself. 

For the not too distant future, Pridgen envisions an expanded Website for the Sheriff's Office. In addition to the fundamental information now listed, he would like to post a kind of "workplace family tree'' with a clickable link to a photo of each administrator, deputy, and employee.

Above: Sheriff Pridgen points out one of two bulletin boards in the entryway to the  Administrative Lobby. He said he hopes people will put them to use with community announcements of every kind.  

"I want to put a new face on Van Buren County law enforcement." Sheriff Pridgen smiled. "A face that is community oriented and that all our citizens look to with pride."

For more information about the policy  changes, organizational development plans and community outreach programs of the Van Buren County Sheriff's Office, stop by the office, visit their Website or phone 501-745-2112.

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This special article is simultaneously published in the January 10 edition of the Fairfield Bay News. Get a copy at a news stand near you today. And, be sure to check the newly expanded Fairfield Bay News Website, hosted right here on gozarks.com!