For a deputy assigned to the Uniform Patrol Division of the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office, no two days are really ever the same.
And according to Captain Jeff Underwood, who has been the Uniform Patrol Division Captain since 2013, the fluid nature of the job makes it perhaps the most unique Division of the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office.
“I got involved in the Patrol Division here and found out that no two days are the same,” according to Captain Underwood. “It is always interesting, whether it is good or bad, it is always interesting.”
For Underwood, whose almost 22 year career in law enforcement began as a Military Policeman in the United States Marine Corps from 1998-2002, he initially fought the urge to become a law enforcement officer after he was discharged. However, about four months after his discharge from the military, he answered the call and began working at the Sheriff’s Office in September of 2002. Eventually, Captain Underwood worked his way up through the ranks, from a Patrol Deputy to supervisor on the Charlie Patrol Shift to Captain of the Division, a position created by Oconee County Sheriff Mike Crenshaw when he took office in 2013.
“It was a natural calling, always knawing at me to get involved with (being a law enforcement officer), to find a higher purpose, joining the Marine Corps and knowing ‘this is what I want to do,’” says Captain Underwood. “Then when I got out, I really fought the urge to continue. However, I ended up here at the Sheriff’s Office and that was almost 18 years ago. I have loved every minute of it.”
The Uniform Patrol Division is made up of 44 deputies, which includes Captain Underwood and Lieutenant Vince Price as overall supervisors of the Division. The remainder of the Division includes the Desk Sergeant, seven reserve deputies (three reserve deputy positions have been added by Sheriff Crenshaw) and 34 deputies who are assigned to the road as those deputies are split into four shifts (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta). Each shift has a First Sergeant’s position, which is the overall road supervisor for that shift, along with a Corporal and Master Patrol Deputy’s position.
Initially when Captain Underwood began, Uniform Patrol deputies worked eight hour shifts. In 2006, the hours per shift were increased to 12 hours with eight deputies on each shift. As it stands now, two of the four shifts have nine deputies assigned while the other two have eight deputies assigned.
When people perhaps hear the term “Patrol Division”, they may imagine a “road patrol division” that issues citations, investigates accidents and make arrests for traffic violations, something more proactive that involves traffic enforcement. And while Uniform Patrol deputies perform some of those traffic enforcement duties, the main purposes for the Patrol Deputy involve activities that are more reactive than proactive.
“For the Patrol Division officer, it starts with responding to calls dispatched. That is their number one priority and it consumes about 80 to 90 percent of their day, just responding to calls for service,” according to Captain Underwood. “After that, their responsibility is checking property. On day shift, you have to get out in these residential areas while people are at work trying to prevent home burglaries. On night shift, it is the opposite, when businesses are closed; you have to check these businesses to make sure there are not business burglaries. Those are their top two priorities at any time. Then, we have patrol requests, where we have complaints about suspicious activity in their neighborhoods or high speed traffic in the school zones, for example.”
As mentioned previously, the Uniform Patrol Division is unique, and part of the uniqueness is the fact that they are the first deputies that are dispatched when a call for service comes in. And because of that first responder responsibility, those who respond may end up performing criminal investigative duties that are performed by other deputies who work in other Divisions of the agency. Even though some deputies chose to advance their careers in the Uniform Patrol Division itself, it is these experiences, according to Captain Underwood, that will help a law enforcement officer decide where the next step in their career may take them.
“With all the specialized units of the Sheriff’s Office, there are times when a Uniform Patrol Deputy does something that involves every one of them,” says Captain Underwood. “They are the first ones to be involved in a homicide or a child abuse case or an incident on the water where the Marine Unit may be called in. The Patrol Officer is the first one there. So, they get that experience of dealing with all kinds of incidents, whether it’s criminal or civil or family related or rescue related. And over the course of their career and their experience, that’s where they learn what they really enjoy doing.”
Since Captain Underwood began as a Patrol deputy in 2002, and as Captain of the Division in 2013, law enforcement has undergone many changes. And that is true for a Patrol Deputy as well. Anyone who is hired for a law enforcement position at the Sheriff’s Office, whether already certified or not, begins in the Uniform Patrol Division, where learning all facets of the job allows the deputy to gain that experience in order to become “a specialist” if they move to other divisions, whether it is Criminal Investigations or becoming a Narcotics Agent or for work in the Warrants Division, for example.
The diversity of calls that Uniform Patrol Deputies are dispatched to can vary in range from a child who is being incorrigible and will not go to school to calls regarding subjects who are dealing with mental health issues to property crimes to homicides. According to Captain Underwood, perhaps the biggest change in the diversity of calls over his career relates to calls regarding mental health. And even though law enforcement officers receive Crisis Intervention Training, those officers are often called upon to perform the tasks that a highly trained counselor or doctor may perform.
“When I started my career, the State Mental Hospitals were still in place. And those closed. So, where do those patients and people with mental illness go is out here on the street,” according to Captain Underwood. “And now, we (law enforcement) are mental health counselors. We’re intervening in situations that, 20 years ago, police didn’t deal with. Those situations are typically reserved for people with six to eight years of education and call themselves a doctor. And now, deputies with six months on the street have to deal with this.”
Another big change regarding the Patrol Division, and other deputies at the Sheriff’s Office for that matter over the past several years, has been the addition of more specialized equipment, such as DOK (Downed Officer Kits) for basic first aid care or AED’s (Automated External Defibrillators) since sometimes deputies are the first public safety personnel that arrive on scene of a cardiac arrest call. A few years ago, deputies went through L.E.O.N (Law Enforcement Officer Naloxone) training before there were assigned Narcan in order to perform life saving measures in relation to overdoses and the opioid crisis. And in 2013, the Sheriff’s Office began assigning body cameras to deputies in the Uniform Patrol Division. All of the advances in technology and lifesaving equipment have paid tremendous dividends not only for the Sheriff’s Office but the citizens of Oconee County as well.
“With the AED’s combined with the DOK kits, we have handed out a couple dozen or more of the lifesaving awards from where we have been able to implement that stuff through either tourniquet application, wound packing and CPR,” according to Captain Underwood. “With the body cams, over seven years with having some sort of body cams on officers, the amount of discipline that has been handed out has been so minimal. Usually if we see something, it is a training issue. Through the volumes and volumes of videos that we have watched, whether it is through a use of force or pursuit or something like that, it is just the amazing quality of the work these officers are doing.”
The addition of technology and medical equipment for deputies does not take into account the additional training and paperwork that deputies are required to do, which is another difference that has taken place over the years. However, with the additional responsibilities comes the pride and gratitude of Captain Underwood for a job well done by his Patrol deputies.
“If I started today, I don’t know that I’d have the same career, I really don’t,” according to Captain Underwood. “Lt. (Vince) Price and I were talking about it a minute ago. It’s amazing how well they do this job with what they are expected to do. We forget that sometimes when we see mistakes and we want them to perform in a certain way and they are expected to do that. But, then we have to remember that mistakes are going to happen. With the amount of officers we have with less than two years’ experience, they’re going to make mistakes. As long as they are doing it in good faith, we have to help them grow.”