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White moves from sheriff to magistrate

December 14, 2012
Morning Journal News

NEW CUMBERLAND-Hancock County Sheriff Mike White's office looks like the office of a man who's got one foot out the door.

The walls are empty, and everything that looks like it belongs on the walls-pictures, awards, plaques-is on the floor.

White, 57, of Weirton, can't be blamed for this arrangement, though. He just moved into the office in October, when the remodeled second floor of the Hancock County Courthouse became dedicated sheriff's department space.

Article Photos

Outgoing Hancock County Sheriff Mike White sits at his desk Thursday in the Hancock County Courthouse. White will move to the Hancock County Magistrate Court building on Jan. 1 to assume his new duties as magistrate. (Photo by Stephen Huba)

Then, in November, he was elected to the office of Hancock County magistrate. Term limits in West Virginia prevented him from running for re-election as sheriff.

White takes the magistrate oath of office next week and assumes his new duties on Jan. 1, 2013, closing a long chapter in the lawman's life. Those mementos on his office floor bespeak a lifetime of law enforcement activity-a 39-year career about which he has very few regrets.

"I guess I feel I'm going out at a good time. ... I think I've served the public well. I did the best I could, and I think that's all that's required of a man," White said.

Reflecting on his eight years as sheriff, White said he is most proud of the department's involvement in the Hancock-Brooke-Weirton Drug Task Force, the Prevention Resource Officer program in Hancock County Schools, the department's K-9 unit, the department's Special Response Team (similar to a SWAT team), the department's aggressive traffic and drunken driving enforcement, and the department's new shooting range on White Oak Run Road.

White said he has sought to keep the department current in terms of training and equipment, while keeping Hancock County on the radar screen of state government and state law enforcement agencies. He currently is president of the West Virginia Sheriffs' Association.

White was instrumental in the state's criminalization of the hallucinogen salvia divinorum, also known as "purple sticky," in 2010, and pushed for legislation permitting the continued use of electronic surveillance by law enforcement in the wake of the controversial 2007 court decision, State of West Virginia v. Mullens.

In October, White announced that Hancock County had been designated a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area by the federal government, which should result in more funding and more manpower for the department to fight drug crime.

White said one of his chief concerns has been the continued training of his deputies. In a department with 26 sworn officers, that has sometimes been a tall order.

"I've struggled to keep the education of the deputies above the minimum standards," he said. "We have some of the finest and best-trained deputies in the state of West Virginia."

White also singled out for praise his felony investigators and the sheriff's reserves. The 25 part-time, unpaid reserve officers assist at accident scenes, high school athletic events and with search and rescue calls.

"They're just a good group of hard-working guys who want to help their community," White said.

White's career in law enforcement started in the sheriff's reserves in 1973, right out of high school. "I just always knew that's what I wanted to do," he said. "I started trying to get police jobs."

White worked for a pest control company and as a security guard for Weirton Medical Center before joining the New Cumberland Police Department as a patrolman in 1976. From there, he joined the Hancock County Sheriff's Department as a deputy in 1979.

White served as chief deputy under Sheriff Jeff Woofter and succeeded him as sheriff in 2004.

"I hope that I helped people and gave them a good outlook on law enforcement," he said. "We've tried to keep a good name, and we've served honorably."

White said community involvement and a good reputation are critical to good law enforcement.

Asked about two incidents involving his deputies that led to lawsuits, White said one "probably is a stain" on the department. In December 2006, a woman from McKees Rocks, Pa., accused Deputy Mark Smith of sexually assaulting her after a traffic stop.

Smith lost his job and was charged in the assault, receiving a one-year jail sentence. The woman sued the sheriff's department in 2008, but the suit was later dismissed.

In a 2007 incident, Special Response Team deputies shot an Ohio man in Newell while attempting to apprehend him on drug charges. The man, paralyzed as a result of the shooting, successfully sued the department in 2008, winning a settlement of $2.65 million.

White defended the actions of his officers in that incident, then added, "Even when we've screwed up, I've always been forthright with the public. ... The public needs to be assured that things aren't going to be covered up and that deputies are going to perform their duties in an honorable way."

As for his successor, incoming Sheriff Ralph Fletcher, White said his advice is, "Always be fair. Be honest. Keep in mind you work for the public."



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