Pinning On
Neil Wants Boots
on the Ground
and Guns in the
Right Hands
 When it comes to pinning a badge on a sheriff, Southwest Ohio is closer to Southwest Texas than it is to Cleveland. We'd rather hire John Wayne from Rio Bravo than folksy Sheriff Andy Taylor from Mayberry, who never carried a gun and gave his deputy one bullet, safely buttoned in a shirt pocket.

Sheriff Richard Jones of Butler County fits the description of the straight-talking lawman Matt Dillon of Dodge City. Clermont County's Sheriff A.J. "Tim" Rodenberg is one of the good guys who earned his star in the Marines and prosecutor's office.

And for 25 years, the gold-bar standard for local sheriffs has been Hamilton County's gung-ho Marine, Si "Semper Fi" Leis. As Duke might say, Sheriff Leis had no back-down in him. Porn pusher Larry Flynt? Bring it on. County commissioners? Get ready to rumble. Media critics? Make my day. His showdowns even included shootouts with his own Republican Party.

New Sheriff in Town

But now that Leis has retired and there's a new sheriff in town, the good citizens of Rio Porkopolis may wonder: Can Sheriff Jim Neil measure up?

The answer may be a surprise "” to some who voted for him, and those who were shocked when he defeated the handpicked Republican heir to Leis, Sean Donovan.

At a rangy 6-foot-5, Neil looks more like the farmer in Babe than John Wayne. But there is no doubt that he is tough enough. After all, this is a man who did 30 years in the Sheriff's Department, including Lt. Commander in Bomb Disposal, defusing pipe bombs, hand grenades, booby-traps and improvised explosive devices in 15 counties. On one call he survived a house rigged with five bombs and hand grenades.

But he's also more educated than the average Earp brother. He uses words such as "deflagration" to describe how a pipe bomb propels shrapnel at 3,000 feet per second. He has a master's degree in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati.

"¢Good Guns'

But he might be the odd man on campus who doesn't think the Second Amendment is academic. "I definitely support the Second Amendment," he says. "I believe in the Constitution 100 percent. I want to make it easier for citizens to get concealed-carry permits in Hamilton County. My goal is to be the No. 1 sheriff in all of Ohio for issuing permits."

Chief Deputy Mark Schoonover adds, "We call those "¢good guns' in the community."

From the left side of the political tracks, that may be a disappointment. No doubt some hoped for a more pacifist Mayberry approach from the first Democrat elected sheriff in Hamilton County since Ivory Soap didn't float.

And those who have smirked for years at the "Si Leis Navy" may also experience a sinking feeling. Neil does not intend to mothball it.

The sheriff's "air force" (two helicopters) and Marine Patrol are far too valuable to be parked or sold, Neil says. The much-maligned hovercraft, for example, is needed for shallow-water operations. And Neil is proud of a new $99,000, 26-foot river patrol boat, added courtesy of Homeland Security.

We'll Walk Instead

The only changes: An armored personnel carrier that was provided by the military will be parked or donated, he says. "We will not use it. The tracks have rubber pads, but they still would tear up the roadways."

And no more parades of "May Day" hardware on Opening Day and for other events. "We will walk instead as part of our fitness program."

But there is still room for remodeling.

Neil intends to relax dress codes for deputies, along with fitness standards. "The agility course is no more. There were too many injuries and it's not a true measure of ability to do the job," he says.

There have already been cuts in administration "to put more boots on the ground," he says. "Were we top heavy? Yes. We should be pyramid shaped. Instead, we were shaped more like a box," he adds, holding up a sheet of paper sideways to illustrate. There was too much upper management that blocked opportunity to advance, he says. "Fifty-percent of top management left of their own accord" soon after his upset election, he says. "These are all positions that serve at the pleasure of the sheriff."

Traditional Hardly Cordial

Some of that might have been avoided, but the transition was not cordial. "I was truly an underdog. Nobody gave me much of a chance," Neil says. For every dollar he spent, Donovan spent nearly $15. The outcome was a shocker, and it showed.

Schoonover recalls, "We requested a meeting for a smooth transition with Sheriff Leis. It lasted all of five minutes. We were told we could speak to division commanders, but we were barred from the rest of the facility."

Neil says, "The gist was no transition. I was not welcome here."

So he is plunging into marathon meetings and audits of programs and operations to find out what should be kept and what should be chucked. The county is strapped, but an arbitrator ordered raises for deputies, so Neil says he has to "find ways to still provide quality services within the allocated budget."

His plan is to cut waste and failing programs to keep more deputies on patrol. He promises better regional teamwork as a force multiplier. "My motto is cooperation and operation."

Stock Rising in the Ranks

Among sheriff's deputies and others in local law enforcement, Neil's stock is rising. They say he gets good advice, learns fast and makes the right moves. Asked about the new boss, deputies working at the courthouse said they like him, "so far, so good." One said, "Having someone who has worked patrol is like having an officer who came up through the ranks."

Leis was a judge and prosecutor and served with the Marines in Beirut in 1958. He became the longest serving sheriff in Hamilton County history, on a roster that reaches back to 1899, according to the Greater Cincinnati Police Museum. Although some mocked his white-hat moral code and hang "¢em high justice, not even Matt Dillon did more to clean up a town and keep it family friendly. He probably could have been re-elected for life. But voters who miss his flinty, Rooster Cogburn style may find the transition more graceful than expected.

"Everything the sheriff built still exists," Neil said of Leis. "I just want to take it to a different level. It's not dismantling what he did. We're building on what he did."

Déjà vu All Over Again

When he took over in 1987, Leis was handed the keys to a new $53 million Justice Center jail that was already bulging at the seams. The man he replaced, Sheriff Lincoln Stokes, a self-described "hard-nosed SOB," warned him that corrections would be his main problem.

More than two decades later, Leis finished his career fighting a losing battle to raise taxes for a new jail. It turned out Hamilton County was like the townsfolk in High Noon "” they wanted law enforcement, until it cost them personally.

The message to Neil: Corrections will be your biggest headache.

Neil has already started another study of jail crowding to block the revolving door that cops call "catch and release." He hopes to find alternatives to jail, by analyzing the inmate population. "We need to know what part needs medical help, psychological help, education or training, and what part needs to be locked up because they are just bad, evil people."

"Alternatives" was the buzzword in 1987, too, when Leis introduced a program to let inmates earn early release by joining outdoor work crews.

And that's not the only echo from 1987: When he took office, Leis promised better regional cooperation; imposed a new fitness and dress code for deputies; struggled with staff and budget cuts; and said he was open to new ideas to make overdue changes in the department.

Just like the new sheriff.
(top) This heavily armored vehicle is used by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Special Response Team when there is a risk of heavy-weapons fire from criminals.
(bottom) A large, heavy metal canister used by the sheriff's department to transport "suspicious devices" for controlled detonation at a safer location. Neil led the bomb squad before running for sheriff.