Sheriffs like Ryan Reardon are multitasking community superheroes

I’ll be honest — doing a whole week of community-themed posts was something I challenged myself to do. I can run a little cynical, and goodness knows this election cycle has me more cynical than ever.

But hope is humanity’s redemption.

That’s why it’s such a relief to write this post about Kennebec County Sheriff Ryan Reardon and his team. Reardon and his team are community leaders doing the kind of things that give people reasons to hold hope.

Reardon at a swearing in ceremony for a human trafficking task force.  Photo provided by Reardon

Reardon at a swearing in ceremony for a human trafficking task force. Photo provided by Reardon

Reardon, who is running for sheriff this election cycle, has been serving as interim sheriff, completing former sheriff Randall Liberty’s term after Liberty was named warden of the state prison. I’ve had the good fortune to interview both gentlemen over the last couple years and through these conversations, I’ve come to appreciate the sheriff’s office as an important community hub.

By hub I mean the sheriff’s office, especially in a rural state like Maine, is critical to community in a number of ways. This team is responsible for law enforcement, and in the case of Kennebec County which supports a jail, corrections, too. The variety of jurisdictions served require interactions with other law enforcement agencies along with a variety of community organizations like the Augusta Boys and Girls Club, as well as with local officials.

Kennebec County Government Center, Augusta.  Photo by Trish Callahan

Kennebec County Government Center, Augusta. Photo by Trish Callahan

The Kennebec County Sheriff’s team is involved in prevention, advocacy and education efforts, and is committed to community service as individuals and as an organization. As Chief Deputy Bill Johnson said in a phone interview this week, “Community policing isn’t something we do; it’s something we live.”

Johnson’s background includes being a deputy chief of police in Sante Fe, New Mexico. He retired to Maine, working for a while as a Kennebec County parole deputy, then outside of law enforcement. Johnson said after Reardon was appointed Sheriff, he approached Johnson and asked him to consider coming back.

Johnson and I had a great conversation. I remembered thinking when I first met Reardon that then-Sheriff Liberty had a knack for surrounding himself with quality people. After interviewing Johnson, I got the sense that Reardon shares that ability.

Johnson said Kennebec County deputies and staff were area coaches in youth leagues and active in charities and schools — not because they are told to do those things, but because they want to. Such activities are a part of who they are and how they conduct themselves. Such activities allow for deep relationships with community members, and those relationships are a part of keeping communities safe.

Those activities are also a way to intervene in the lives of children and adults when they aren’t in crisis.

Johnson and I had been talking about Reardon’s demeanor, and I had recounted the first time I met Reardon, then a deputy, during a traffic stop. I told Johnson I was impressed with Reardon’s ability to respond with genuine empathy for my situation while also reminding me about safety concerns (it was a sticker violation on a VERY old car) and helping me troubleshoot how best to proceed.

Johnson told me that I’d be happy to know that the attitude I described is an ethos the entire team shares. Johnson said that he emphasizes to deputies that he doesn’t want “gotcha policing” when it comes to things like minor traffic violations. Johnson tells the deputies that he doesn’t care about traffic ticket statistics, he cares about developing relationships that lead to voluntary compliance.

Johnson even used the phrase “emotional intelligence” when talking about the way he and Reardon want deputies to approach their interactions with citizens. I was glad Johnson used that particular phrase because it’s the best way to characterize the way Johnson spoke during our interview and the way Reardon spoke when I caught up to him after an addiction forum in Winthrop last week.

Google definition:

e·mo·tion·al in·tel·li·gence


noun: emotional intelligence

1the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”emotional intelligence is the key to both personal and professional success”

And it’s not just a catch phrase with these gentlemen, who are so emotionally intelligent, they speak naturally and lovingly about the importance of family and about trying to balance their careers and fatherhood. (I hope lovingly isn’t too mushy a word to pin on such accomplished law enforcement professionals!)

Don’t get me wrong — these gentlemen are obviously committed to public safety and upholding laws. However, these gentlemen understand that there’s more to public safety than ticketing, arresting, and jailing people.

Reardon spoke with a remarkable and profound respect — for his staff of 130 comprising five divisions, for his inmates and their backgrounds, and for the numerous people with whom he collaborates in his role as sheriff. He was thoughtful enough to remember my interest in the Kennebec Restorative Harvest program, in which inmates tend to a garden and collaborate with the Department of Agriculture to distribute the produce in the fight against hunger.

Equipment and fields awaiting spring.  (Photo by Trish Callahan)

Equipment and fields awaiting spring. (Photo by Trish Callahan)

The drought contributed to a smaller harvest than last year, but nonetheless Reardon said 21,000 of produce were distributed to 25-30 organizations, mostly schools. I asked him what he thought of transitioning from chief deputy to the role of sheriff, and Reardon chuckled as he replied that it was “like trying to drink from a fire hose!”

Reardon said it’s the kind of job “you can’t learn until you are there,” but it seemed to me that he found the challenge invigorating rather than overwhelming. Johnson seconded my perception saying how impressed he was with the way Reardon acclimated to the role and learned to break the tremendous amount of responsibility down into smaller pieces to prioritize and manage.

Reardon credited Liberty’s mentorship and the way Liberty groomed him by changing his role every couple years. For example, Reardon was jail administrator when Liberty implemented a veterans’ block at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility (KCCF). Prior to implementation, Reardon saw firsthand how problematic the general population environment could be for veterans with PTSD and how their struggles compromised the well-being of the veterans and the overall climate at the jail.

Kennebec County Correctional Facility, Augusta.  Photo by Trish Callahan

The seasonally decorated Kennebec County Correctional Facility, Augusta. Photo by Trish Callahan

Once given their own block, veterans began to support each other, and their conduct as a block began to mirror the environment military personnel become accustomed to during their service. Disruptions involving veterans dissipated as leadership and camaraderie emerged on the block, which is the only one of its kind in the state.

I’ve interviewed many veterans who report that it’s difficult to transition from the purposeful, structured military life back to civilian life. The way Reardon described the block, it intends to alleviate some of that difficulty in the jail setting, which I’m sure could be especially triggering.

The block is decorated with a US flag and logos from each of the five military branches; and currently three or four are represented in the inmate population. Reardon said the improvement in the veterans’ well being and in the overall safety at the jail was dramatic.

So dramatic that Reardon is committed maintaining and growing Kennebec County’s commitment to veterans. He wants “to ramp up” KCCF’s relationship with the Veterans Administration to ensure that veteran inmates are connected to the full gamut of services available to them.

Reardon also credited the leadership of his chief deputy. Reardon and Johnson speak with great pride about KCCF’s Criminogenic Addiction Recovery Academy (CARA), too. Another of Liberty’s visionary endeavors, CARA is a program that targets inmates serving sentences for drug-related crimes. Participants are separated from the general population while engaging in activities geared toward developing life and coping skills that support changes in thinking and lifestyle choices.

Johnson compared Maine’s current heroin problem to what he saw “fifteen to twenty years ago in Sante Fe,” and cautioned that from his experience, he knows our crisis could get worse in terms of violence and overdoses. Johnson’s belief in CARA comes directly from that experience.

Reardon and Johnson are aware each participant “has a story,” as Johnson said — experiences that contributed to their current circumstance, many of which happened when they were young and had no control.

“We can’t make people change unless we give them the tools to look within.” Johnson said continuing, “We’re not changing anybody by putting them in a cell and turning around and walking away.  If they’re successful, they’re not coming back to jail.”

Given a recidivism rate for participants that’s less than half the national average, I’m guessing he’s right.

Poster made by recent graduates of the Kennebec County Jail Criminogenic Addiction Recovery Academy.  Blurry photo by Trish Callahan

Poster made by recent graduates of the Kennebec County Jail Criminogenic Addiction Recovery Academy. Blurry photo by Trish Callahan

Reardon seems to be doing his extremely complicated, challenging, and I’m sure at times gut wrenching job in a way that makes me question my cynicism a little. He is intimate with the tragedies of traffic accidents, the dark underpinnings of the addiction epidemic, the backgrounds and realities of his inmates, the human consequences of any number of crimes, the plight of area underprivileged youth, and so on and so on.

Nevertheless, Reardon presents with a calm, humble strength. He is at once authentic (to borrow a word from Johnson), grounded in his reality, yet optimistic. He’s quick to smile when he talks about his staff or about the progress he sees participants in the veteran’s and CARA programs. Johnson said the most impressive thing about Reardon was that “he genuinely cares about people; there’s no facade,” and I concur.

You can tell Reardon’s passion for his job and the communities he serves isn’t just something he does; like Johnson said, it’s something Reardon lives.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.