The Messenger’s Political Series: Etowah County Sheriff candidate Colonel Leonard Kiser shares vision for community

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Watch the full interview online here

For those who don’t know you, give a brief bio – where you were born and raised, your professional career and your involvement with the community.

“I grew up in Cherokee County and went to school at Spring Garden High School. Two weeks after I graduated from there in 1971, I went directly into the army. I did a three-year initial hitch in the army and joined the National Guard before I got out of the army. I became a deputy sheriff in Cherokee County and later worked 6-7 months at Piedmont Police Department. I worked 20 years for the state after that. When I retired, I was a North Alabama Supervisor for half the state with the agency I worked for. In the National Guard, I was in the 20th Special Forces Group as an observation officer.”

 You’ve served in law enforcement for over 20 years, working as a Deputy Sheriff, Municipal Police Officer, State Investigator and Supervisor. You also served almost 40 years in the United States military. What inspired you to pursue both of these paths for your life?

“I had a bunch of role models in my life. I had four uncles that were career marines and several more uncles that were in the military, [who served in] World War II, Korea and Vietnam. It was a rite of passage in our family to serve.

I also had family in law enforcement. My grandfather was a law enforcement officer, and I had a couple uncles in law enforcement – one of them was a deputy U.S. Marshall in Atlanta. I have a lot of law enforcement in my background too.”

What does service mean to you?

“Service is to serve other people, not to serve yourself. That’s one of my primary things. I learned a long time ago in leadership positions that you don’t serve yourself. You’re not a good leader if you’re trying to serve yourself – you have to serve the people that work for you.”

What did you learn throughout your years serving – both in law enforcement and the military?

“I learned leadership ability as my career advanced. The experiences I had with over 23 years in law enforcement in conjunction with I’ve traveled two-thirds of the world, [brought me to the conclusion that] I know the United States is the greatest country in the world. We’ve got the best criminal justice system in the world and the best law enforcement system in the world – but it’s certainly not perfect. It’s discriminatory in many aspects…primarily not based on race, but on income. Money makes a difference in our criminal justice system.

You go and look at who is in the jail and regardless of race, they’re poor. I think that’s one of the major problems with our criminal justice system. Drugs are our major problem…drugs and corruption in this county. You go up to the jail and there’s nobody up there that’s wealthy. Drug users are the people who stay in jail. Drug dealers are not the people who are in jail.”

How would you address and change the issues facing Etowah County?

“One of the primary things I want to do for the sheriff’s office and for the public is I want to eliminate political patronage in the sheriff’s office. I don’t know if the public realizes how much authority and power the sheriff has, but the sheriff hires and promotes who he wants. There is a deputy civil service board, but primarily all they do is handle firing issues.

Loyalty is a great thing, but you have to earn loyalty and it runs both ways. I despise an agency where you’ve got to be loyal to the leader and it doesn’t matter if he’s right or wrong, but it matters if you’re loyal to him or not. That’s simply unprofessional. I want to professionalize the sheriff’s department. I want to empower the civil service board to not only deal with firings, but I want to have them identify the three best candidates for a job by evaluating their qualifications and testing people. I want them to give me the three most qualified candidates names, and I will hire one of those candidates.

I don’t care if they support me in the election or not. I want the best and the brightest. I will worry about whether they’re loyal to me then. I think an effective leader doesn’t worry about loyalty, because they develop loyalty.”

In your opinion, what characteristics should an effective sheriff possess?

“First off, an effective sheriff has to make a good administrator. The sheriff’s job is not a law enforcement job. He’s got to be well-versed in law enforcement, but his primary duties are not going out and arresting people. It’s creating an atmosphere where the people that work for them can do their job. You’ve got to be a good administrator and a good leader.

Leadership is the primary thing. If you can’t inspire and motivate people to do their job, you’re not going to be effective, because you can’t do all the work. The sheriff is a facilitator. He makes it easy for the employees to do their jobs.”

In your opinion, what is the sheriff’s role in the community?

“The sheriff is a leader, administrator, facilitator and a diplomat. In my training in the Army Special Forces, we trained foreign nationals or foreign armies. You’ve got to have a good bit of diplomacy to do that. That’s part of it. One of the things that is sorely lacking in our community and in our county is cooperation. We’ve got a lot of different groups and it seems rather than yelling and pulling together, there’s a lot of butting heads and competition.

Our congress is a prime example of that. When people don’t cooperate and they won’t agree to disagree, and they won’t see other people’s opinions, you’ve got a major problem. You can’t progress then. I think that’s where Etowah County is. It’s sad for me to go to Marshall County and Calhoun County and see how much they’ve changed in the last 20 years and see how little Etowah County has changed and progressed. I think it’s a leadership issue.”

What inspired you to run for sheriff?

“I had never thought about running for sheriff. I never really had any ambition to be the sheriff until I saw what had happened to our sheriff’s department. I never liked political patronage as I said. I worked for a great sheriff – he was great, no questions asked. Political patronage is one of the reasons I’m running. We need to have a professional agency that does the job and reflects well on the community.

One of the primary things that businesses and industries look at when they come into a community is how effective is the law enforcement and crime rate. We’re not doing well in that. One source that I saw said we have a crime in Etowah county every two hours and two minutes. That’s not good. Those are just reported crimes.

My careers in law enforcement and the military reflect well on my leadership ability and the fact that I have a proven record of motivating and leading people. I can do that as a sheriff of Etowah County.”

What are some ways you motivate and inspire others?

“You lead by example. You have to be that diplomat to motivate people and you’ve got to be out front. If you’re thinking about you as the most important thing, you’ve failed on the mission right off the bat. You’re not the issue. The agency in the public is the issue. If you’re looking to get a raise or see how much more money you can make or things of that nature, you’re a failure. It’s all about the people that work there and the service to the public. I have seen law enforcement go from a service-oriented organization to a revenue production agency. That’s the primary concern of law enforcement in this county – revenue production. That’s sad.

I said recently in a meeting with some legislators that it’s not the sheriff’s department or the police department’s job to generate revenue. It’s not their job. It’s the Alabama legislator’s job to fund those agencies so they can do their job. I think using law enforcement to produce revenue is simply wrong.”

What will be your first action taken, should you be elected?

“The first thing I’ll do if I’m elected is appoint a staff that is smarter than me. I don’t see smart people as a threat. I love to have people around me that are smarter than I am, because I love to learn every day. I will have the best and the brightest staff.

The second thing I’m going to do is approach the legislative delegation to eliminate political patronage in hiring and promotion in the sheriff’s department. I want to get local legislation [to include] more qualifications to become sheriff.

There’s a couple of counties in Alabama that have qualifications for sheriff and local legislation and I think Etowah County should do that also. It reflects well on the professionalism of the agency. People that are not qualified shouldn’t be able to be sheriff. It shouldn’t be a popularity contest. It should be based on qualifications.”

What are some additional qualifications you believe should be in place?

“I think there should be a combination of law enforcement experience, leadership experience and education. There may be substitutes, [for example] if you have a B.S. degree, you might get three or four years [deducted from] experience, or master’s degree, six years [deducted from] experience. It would be a combination, but I would really love to see only qualified people being able to run for sheriff.”

Walk us through your plan of action. How would you strive to implement change?

“I’m going to have an effective drug enforcement program and I intend to put the meth and opioid dealers and traffickers out of business in this county. That’s possible. That’s what I did for over four years. You’ve just got to want to do it. One of the primary corruption issues in this county is the amount of money that drugs generate and the side effects that they generate. There’s a lot of side effects and a lot of programs created because of the impact of drugs.

I’m going to use my diplomatic skills to increase the cooperation between all agencies in Etowah County, not just law enforcement agencies. I’m going to cooperate with the County Commission and I’m going to be totally transparent. The commission is going to know how much money is in the sheriff’s discretionary account and I don’t mind them making recommendations, but that discretionary account is going to be spent primarily for training and equipping officers, nothing else.

Political patronage is a big thing. I won’t take any money other than the legal salary of the sheriff. When I qualified, the county financial officer said the salary now is $107,000. That will be the maximum benefit I will receive.

I’ll keep accurate training records, ensure everyone receives the best training and I will appoint a full time training officer to ensure everything is happening correctly and it is the best available. Everybody does their job based on how they’re trained. If you’re not trained correctly, you’re never going to be effective.

I will live within a workable budget if I’m elected sheriff. When I agree to a budget, I will do my very best to maintain and stay within that budget. I will support and protect the citizens for their right to keep and bear arms. A major issue is I’ll stop the focus being on revenue production and put it back on serving the public. Drugs are a major issue. If we could solve the drug problem, 90 – 95% of other problems would be resolved.”

What is your ultimate vision for Etowah County moving forward?

“You have to have short term goals and a strategic plan. I will develop a strategic plan for the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office, and I will implement that plan. I will have someone follow me or make someone available to follow me who has the same sort of motivation or goals that I will recommend to the public because I’m only going to seek this office one time.

I don’t plan on establishing a kingdom at the sheriff’s office. I’m only going to run one time and if I’m elected, I’ll only serve one full term. But I will cultivate people who will do the same sort of work that I will do. You have to grow in a job. When you become comfortable, you quit growing and you quit accomplishing things.”

Out of all your experiences, everything you’ve accomplished, what would you say is most meaningful?

“I had six guys work for me that became general officers and numerous people that became full colonels. I think that has to be the highlight of my career – all the people that work for me. But a good leader, I’ve always said, has to be a good follower. I worked for some of the best people in the military and I worked for some of the best people in law enforcement. It’s a great career. That’s what makes good leaders – being exposed to good leadership.”

Is there a message you would like to send to voters, concerning your mission and hope for the future?

“As I said earlier, I’m not doing this for myself. I had so many people approach me and ask me to do it. I felt like I’ve been fortunate enough to live here and have success and I feel obligated to offer myself to the public to professionalize the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office. I’m offering myself to do that for four years. I’d like to do it because I think we desperately need it. I think the county desperately needs it and I promise I’ll accomplish good things.”

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