Q & A: Sheriff Mike Lewis is building a strong force

Sheriff Mike Lewis ranks as one of the most popular publicly elected officials in Wicomico County’s history. Personal, engaging and charismatic, he’s one of those rare people difficult to overlook.
The sheriff excels at making his presence known, and when he begins to speak, it’s impossible to close your ears.
A Salisbury native, Lewis retired as a Sergeant after 22 years with the Maryland State Police. His claim to police fame is his record in stemming the flow of drugs up the East Coast.
The Salisbury Bypass portion of Route 13 was for years his patrol corridor. He made himself an expert in all the ways contraband can be transported.
When Sheriff R. Hunter Nelms retired in 2006, Lewis defeated another retired trooper, the late Kirk Daughtery, and was elected Nelms’ successor.
In the 12 years since, Lewis has transformed the Sheriff’s Office, increasing its staff (to nearly 100 people), its influence and helping to make it a complete and county-wide law enforcement entity.
His popularity is such that the sheriff has run for re-election three times with no opposition, as was the case when he was re-elected in November.

Q. How’s it feel to be “The Man”?
A.
It feels great. I have a, I have a great group of men and women I work with every day that, and I honestly, I don’t go to work every day. I do, what I do every day, something I’ve enjoyed for the last 35 years of my life.
And to go to work every day and do what I do it’s like having a front row seat to the greatest show on earth. It really is.

Q. When I came back as the editor in 1999, our Sheriff’s Office was, it was pretty good, but it was not the professional county police organization. It was still a tieback to the old days. And you have really changed this force into a completely different dynamic. Was that on purpose? Or did that just happen based on what was needed in the community?
A.
Well, I certainly think it was needed in the community but it was by design and by purpose.
I selected our core group of men and women to be on my command staff and they knew what my vision was for Wicomico County.
My predecessor had done a wonderful job as sheriff for Wicomico County for five consecutive terms.

Q. That was Hunter Nelms.
A.
Hunter Nelms, absolutely. He had done an absolutely wonderful job.

Q. Former State Police Trooper.
A.
Yup, former trooper and former chief of the Delmar police, prior to that.
He was called to the bedside of the sheriff at that time, who told him that he had a terminal disease and he was gonna ask that Hunter be appointed sheriff of Wicomico county. That sheriff by the way was John Walt Baker.
And John Walt Baker summoned Hunter to his bedside and the governor appointed R. Hunter Nelms as sheriff.
Then he would run for election and was elected and then run another four successive terms and he served 22 years as sheriff in Wicomico County and did a fantastic job and laid a great foundation for me to walk in and take over.
But, philosophically you know, everybody differs a little bit and I had a vision for what I thought the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office should be in this county and how important it was for me that I work on that and I told my constituents what I wanted to do when I first ran in 2006.
And I can honestly say in the last 12 years I think we have come full circle and we are moving in the right direction.
Violent crime is way down here in Wicomico county. Property crime is up, but violent crime is way down.
You rarely hear about the homicides and the home invasions that we heard about when I took over in 2006, so I can honestly say as you said, the, I think the perception of the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office has changed dramatically.

Q. One of my deputy friends years ago said that “we need a new building, we need a new headquarters.” I replied you will never get a new building, they’re going to leave you where you are forever. They’ll buy you new cars, they’ll build a new jail, but they’re never going to build a new office for the sheriff. And now you’re getting a new office!
A.
We sure are. I thank our County Council for that. We’ve been working on that for a number of years, but it was our County Executive Bob Culver who has made our vision come true and he has worked very closely with us on a number of issues, including our new building our new design for the building and the land has been acquired.
We were looking at a couple other parcels here in Wicomico County, but our County Executive wanted to be fiscally responsible.
We’re set on this new location. It’s been acquired. It’s been settled on. The sign is in the ground. And we sent out the request for qualifications for our new building, and then we’ll send requests for proposals.
We hope to break ground in the fall or early next spring. Either way, we’re going in the right direction now on this new building. Very excited about that!

Q. And it’s not just a luxury. It’s a needed thing.
A.
I’m so glad to hear you say that. This is not a luxury at all. This is an absolute necessity.

Q. You’re basically in what’s a farm building right now.
A.
Absolutely. We’re in an old steel building. The ceiling continues to leak. We just spent tens of thousands of dollars to have the roof on this building waterproofed and it’s still leaking. We have to cover things with plastic, even in my own office, and set trash cans up to collect the water when it rains heavily. And you can’t operate like that.
We’ve outgrown the building. We only have about 13,000 square feet in that building. We’re going go from 13,000 to approximately 36,000 square feet.

Q. The location is gonna be on the West Side of Salisbury. You’ll be able to get on routes 50 and 13 in 10 seconds.
A.
Seconds! It’s going to be right off Naylor Mill Road, just right off of Route 50. And we’ll be able to respond very quickly to calls for service. As you said, we can access the Bypass in seconds, and we can access any location in county and be there in a very quick manner.

Q. You were just re-elected. How many terms is this?
A.
This is my fourth, four-year consecutive term and I couldn’t be more grateful to the citizens of Wicomico County for entrusting me with this tremendous amount of responsibility.

Q. Is it awkward not having anyone run against you because you don’t get to brag about yourself in the same way?
A.
You know, you’ve said something there. I’ve got to tell you in my office my immediate command staff would like to see a challenger because they know how much we have accomplished in the last 12 years and they want to put that out there.
Certainly, we live in a democracy and I welcome anybody who thinks they can do a better job (to run).
There are certainly much better people out there than me and if you think you can do a better job, by all means, step up for the citizens of Wicomico County, and run.
This is not an easy task; this is not an easy job — it’s a tremendous amount of responsibility.
I tell people all the time, you know, we have the authority to restrict one’s freedom — their basic freedom of liberty — but we also have the authority to take a human life and that’s a tremendous amount of responsibility.
It’s more important today than ever before because law enforcement’s being challenged in every step of the way.

Q. I’ve been on jury duty this month and been in the courtroom while the jury is being selected and what is new since the last time I was in that situation is how many questions there are about whether you can trust the police. Many potential jurors stand up and say they can’t trust the police, and it’s very alarming.
A.
What is very hurtful to me is that in every profession there are a small amount of individuals who give us all a bad name. I can tell you the overwhelming majority of the police officers I’ve worked with in my career have been 100 percent professional and 100 percent trustworthy.
But there are a small-minute amount that go astray but it’s in any profession — it’s in any profession.

Q. Is its hard, when you’re given a power, not to use it.
A.
You better believe it is, and not to abuse it. It’s very, very difficult because as I said earlier, we do have a tremendous amount of authority and that’s authority that is given to us by our community, by our citizens, by our constituents.
I tell my people all the time: Do not betray the citizens trust and our authority do to do our job.

Q. When I see an officer pull someone over and the officer walks up to the car, my stomach just starts churring because that confrontation is about to happen. And I’m so conditioned, I guess from TV, to start thinking something’s going to happen. Yet you see the officers and they’re just doing it completely professionally they’re not even agitated at all. I would be terrified every time I approached a vehicle.
A.
That’s why I continue to teach and train today. I teach how to approach a traffic stop.
You will never see me walk up on the driver’s side of an automobile. I teach passenger-side approaches.
Most violators, good and bad, expect to see the police officer walk up on the driver’s side, but that’s what I call the “fatal funnel,” walking into the fatal funnel. That’s where all violators prepare themselves for your approach, so I teach a passenger-side approach.
That is by far the most dangerous part of our profession today, our traffic stops.
There was recently a traffic stop in North Carolina that resulted in the trooper being shot 12 times through the front windshield, before he ever got an opportunity to get out of his vehicle. He was shot in the face, he was shot in the skull.
These are very challenging times right now in this country, and traffic stops are very dangerous part of our profession.

Q. People ask me say all the time why do these sheriff’s’ vehicles have to cost so much money? They truly don’t understand why you can’t get a $20,000 car and put it on the road, that you have to get this $60,000 vehicle that has all this equipment. Walk me through that so people understand.
A.
It’s a great question. We were purchasing and we purchased new vehicles, not every year, but most every year, we purchase new vehicles. We’re hoping to get more this year.
We ended up getting eight vehicles last year. We asked for 15. We got eight.
Police vehicles are not basic automobiles. Police vehicles have to have heavy-duty alternators, heavy-duty generators.
These vehicles go through a lot. They have to go from doing 10 to 15 mph right now to 130-140 mph at the drop of a hat.
Once we get that notification that we have an armed robbery in progress, we have a home invasion, we have an active shooter situation — which we rarely have here in Wicomico County — or we have an accident with serious injury, we have to respond and get there very quickly.
That’s a lot of wear and tear on these vehicles.
But, most importantly, it’s the equipment that goes in these vehicles. When I came on the job as a trooper, all we had was radios and emergency lights.
Today our Wicomico County sheriff’s deputies, in addition to having their police radios that monitor all law enforcement in the county, they not only can monitor and switch over to each individual agency in their police cars, they have mobile data terminals.
They run on all their own license checks, run their own wanted checks, they scan the licenses in their police cars.
They push a few buttons and they print out their tickets and warnings now with printers in the cars. They don’t write anything today. Same way with their police reports. We wrote all our police reports in our cars. Today these police cars we have mobile data terminals they have work stations in their police cars.
They have in-car cameras. They have body-worn cameras in addition to the in-car cameras.
We have stalker radar units with antennas mounted front and rear. We have laser units in our cars we have stop sticks in our cars. There’s so much equipment in these vehicles that we call them EPVs, or Enhanced Patrol Vehicles.
They’re fully equipped and they cost us about $58,000 dollars per vehicle to get them ready to go out on the road.
That’s the purchase of the vehicle, equipment of vehicle. It’s very important we have these resources. If you expect the deputies to do their jobs, we need to give them the tools to do their jobs.

Q. You shocked me here in the last two years as the opioid problem has gotten more attention. As my law-and-order sheriff, I just knew you’d say let’s arrest everybody — if they know they know they’re going to go to jail for it, they won’t do it. That’s not your attitude at all.
A.
Well your old law-and-order sheriff would have said that —you’re exactly right.

Q. But you’ve said we can’t arrest our way out of this.
A.
We cannot. If I’ve learned nothing else, we’ll never be able to arrest ourselves out of this problem, this opioid crisis.
I got such a heartfelt email yesterday from a woman here in the county who had lost a dear friend over the weekend to an overdose and she had just been discharged from Detention Center last week and she binged over the weekend and it appears that’s why she passed away.
I’m very familiar with the case. It’s an issue that were working on every single day. We are not going to surrender, we’re not going to wave that white flag.
We have to continue to chip away at this crisis every single day.
It affects us all.

Q. And you’ve been to the source — you’ve been by helicopter down to South America and seen the poppy fields.
A.
I was down there for a week with the State Department and the DEA; I’ll be traveling to Mexico next month with the DEA to address the same issue. We’re actually going into the Sinaloa Valley where El Chapo ran his entire organization.
I was asked to go and, obviously, I’m going to seize that opportunity because it’s very important to bring that knowledge back to this region of our country and educate others on what going on down in Mexico.
Mexico remains the No. 1 source country in the world for illegal narcotics. Unfortunately, we Americans only make up 7 percent of the world’s total population, but 68 percent of the world’s total drugs are consumed here in the United States.
Americans have an insatiable appetite for narcotics and it’s because of our wealth, because of the disposable income.

Q. And while our county’s violent crime rate is way down, our property crime rate stays, and it’s based on the drug issue.
A.
Yes, 100 percent.
We (recently) apprehended three suspects who had burglarized 30-plus cars in the Rustic Acres area of Wicomico County.
When deputies responded to the area they saw a taxicab leaving the area at a high rate of speed with occupants. This was 3 o’clock in the morning. So while a couple of the deputies started investigating these burglaries of these cars, one of the deputies ran down the taxicab and stopped it.
Sure enough, each of the occupants had backpacks, they were dressed in dark clothing, and they had stolen property from all 30-plus vehicles. Two were juveniles, one was an adult. This is something going on every single week night here in Wicomico County.
We formed a task force to address these, the what we call rogue and vagabonds, but in fact they are burglarizing people’s cars.
The common denominator is that most of the time the vehicles are left unlocked. In the recent case with the 30-plus cars, one guy said they didn’t break into any car, they simply opened the cars if they were unlocked, went in and rifled through the vehicles, and took what they could take to sell to satisfy drug addiction.

Q. Did your deputies like wearing body cameras at first or did they have to come around on it.
A.
I think that they were resistant, honestly, but they have come full circle.
I can tell you a recent arrest of an individual who was running for public office went on social media and said some very disparaging comments about our deputies and had alluded to the fact that there would be a lawsuit pending.
I can tell you when that individual and her attorney saw the body-worn camera footage, it was a plea that came very quickly.

Q. Yes, as a citizen who watched that my jaw hurt because my mouth was hanging open so much for the entire duration of that video. Your deputies performed perfectly.
A.
Absolutely. When I watched that I called my command staff and we watched it together and I was taking notes on a legal pad and I then called each individual deputy and thanked them for the high level of professionalism that they exhibited.

Q. Have the cameras improved police conduct and performance?
A.
No question. There’s no doubt it has better professionalized our agency. We know we’re on camera. That’s what I’ve always loved about the car cameras, and being one who has been an advocate and proponent of the in car camera and my entire career — I was one of the first five troopers in the entire state of Maryland to ever get a camera.
I was the only trooper east of the Bay Bridge to have a camera put in my car because they anticipated that I would be involved in a deadly confrontation working on the Route 13 drug corridor.
I was told that “you’re being selected because of the work that you do and the high-risk traffic stop you’re making with regularity — if that happens, we want to capture on camera.”
And then I used the camera to my advantage and realized that being on camera was nothing more than a performance for the courts, for the judge and for the juries.
What a powerful piece of evidence — most non-bias piece of evidence we’re ever going to have.

Q. What can citizens do to help you with your job to help make things better in the county and support your deputies and you?
A.
Well that’s a great question. Traffic stops are important. Please understand when you get stopped by law enforcement, you’re not being stopped arbitrarily, you’re being stopped for a reason.
Often times it’s a reason that you have no idea why you’re being stopped. Right now, every day with regularity I’m seeing expired tags. Tags that expired in November and December of 2018 and here we are in mid-January, now so it’s our job to bring that violation to your attention.
You don’t know, but we have two choices: We can issue a warning, or we can issue a citation.
I think what’s most important for every citizen to recognize is attitude is everything. If you were cordial and polite and professional to my deputy, you can guarantee the same response back that’s going to be reciprocated to you.
If it’s not reciprocated to you, it’s something I need to know about. Don’t become argumentative on the roadside with the deputy. Let me know. Let us deal with it — that’s why we’re here: to handle these types of incidents and or calls.
Please understand deputies’ jobs are very difficult — they have no idea when they stop you that you’ve been involved in a domestic with your wife or husband this morning or your significant other. We have no idea if you’ve had a bad day or you’ve lost a loved one overnight to cancer or to an accident or to homicide.
We don’t know what’s going on in your life, but you don’t know what going on in our lives either.
We have a job to do. We have to take enforcement action, so please try to be cordial, be professional and that hopefully will be reciprocated.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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