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Nov. 29, 2022

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Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins will retire when term concludes

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter
3 Photos
Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins takes a peek outside his office Monday afternoon. The sheriff recently sat down with The Columbian to reflect on his first term.
Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins takes a peek outside his office Monday afternoon. The sheriff recently sat down with The Columbian to reflect on his first term. Nathan Howard/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins recently sat down with The Columbian to discuss his future as sheriff and reflect on his first term.

Atkins, 64, spoke about his future beyond his second and final term and the eventual transition to the county’s next top cop.

He also touched on his top priorities as sheriff, including the push for a new Clark County Jail, and setbacks, such as the firing last year of Deputy Erin Willey over affiliations with the Proud Boys, a far-right group known for white nationalist rhetoric.

Atkins’ comments are edited for clarity.

Just to be totally sure, this is your last term?

I have made that very clear to just about everybody, and most clearly to my wife, that this is it. It’s time for a change to happen and new people to come in. Anything could happen, but in my mind, there’s nothing that I can think of that would extend my stay beyond this term.

What accomplishments do you think stand out to you so far in the nearly five years that you’ve been sheriff?

I think we brought a very open leadership role to the agency and to the employees, not that my predecessor didn’t in some ways.

Shy of some minor things that we may have done that people don’t like within the agency … generally speaking, I think the morale is up.

Even though we may not have beautiful precinct buildings like the city of Vancouver Police Department … we have movement in those areas. We have safe vehicles to drive. We have increased the staff from the downturn of (2008) when we came on in (2015).

We have revamped the (human resources) division that has really, really pushed a lot of people through the door, and that would be awesome, but we’re losing as many as we hire — and not because of poor employees. It’s because we have … 25- to 35-year veterans in a window of retirement right now.

I think our relationship with the (Clark County Council) and the county manager is different than they’ve ever known, and part of that is because I never knew any different. For me it was, “I need something. They’re who I need to talk to. I just go over there,” and some of the comments were, “We’ve never seen the sheriff over here as much as we’ve seen you the first three weeks,” and that was just my style. I like to get face-to-face with people and talk through those issues, whatever that issue is.

So the (hiring) and then the movement of the jail … has really become the focus. … I’ve got to keep bodies in here, taking calls for service, and we’ve got to fix the jail so that we have humane conditions for the inmates and we reduce that liability that comes with housing people that have no freedom to leave.

It may not, in and of itself, sound like a huge success, but I think it’s very important, and we’ve made a lot of movement in those areas.

What have been a few of the challenges and, maybe, some of the things that have surprised you since you started as sheriff?

I have to look at more than just the enforcement world. I’m looking at the jail world, the civil world.

So I may have jumped the gun on a policy or something that impacted the working groups in a way that they then would arbitrate or, you know, file a grievance, but we work through it.

So, that was the new world for me; and then, it’s no secret a while back that I let an employee go (who) was part of the Proud Boys girls group (and) who was on probation. That’s a big, long story with a lot of public disclosure. That came with lot of resistance from some of the employees here, which shocked me. Actually, it really did, but I understood it.

Like I’ve said before, emotions run high in all walks of life, whether you’re a police officer, a victim of a crime or a parent of a criminal who … ends up being injured, shot, or killed by police. Even if we’re 100 percent right, that parent has a child, and emotions that we need to understand and not take personal. But I tried to make (decisions) based on what was best for the community, the agency, the county and for the employees. When I believe something is right, I go for it, and I just needed to learn how to, maybe, go for it in a controlled fashion that included others. So it was a learning curve for me, but you can’t make everybody happy.

Have you heard any rumblings of anybody in the sheriff’s office who may want to run for sheriff or anyone outside?

I can honestly say I have not heard anyone on the outside yet. I’ve heard a little bit on the inside, people that are asking the right questions and showing the right attitude about thinking about it. Of course, I’ll honor their privacy because, as you know, from an elected standpoint, once you announce that you’re going to run, even if it’s well before the filing time, all sorts of things kick in that you must do. So they’re going to keep it close to their chest right now.

What I would say is, as part of the succession planning, I will make sure that everybody gets equal opportunity to me and to this administration to learn the ins and outs of what is going on and how we’re handling it and be sure that they’re getting the right training that if they truly want to do it, they’ll be in a good place to do it. But they’re going to have to work among themselves if there’s more than one internally to decide who really is the right person for the job, and it’s going to their personality, their leadership ability that’s going to decide who the agency may want to support if it’s internal.

I’ll try to keep my hand out of that, but I’ll try to equip anybody that’s interested equally so that they can make the determination of who it should be.

When you’re done being sheriff, do you have any other aspirations beyond that career-wise?

In my mind, here’s what I’ve told my kids and I’ve told my wife: I don’t want to work another job for money. I retired in 2012 after 35 years, not knowing that I was going to come back and run for sheriff. It was a thought, but I had reached a point where I felt I just needed to go away and refresh. I did, and I committed to an eight-year term because of age and everything else. My family deserves the right to have me with them doing things differently than this job.

I have no regrets, and I am going to be walking out the door a happy person, but I do know that for the next 3 1/2 years, I do have a responsibility to equip and get people ready to fill all those vacancies of me and all the other appointeds that eventually will not be in those positions. But we have great employees that are ready to fill all of that, and whoever the new sheriff is coming in — whether it’s internal or external — they’re going to see the great employees here and utilize them.

But they’re also going to bring their own people. I hope it’s internal. We have people that are well-qualified and ready, but you never know when it comes to an election.

Columbian county government and small cities reporter

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