Retiring Butler Sheriff Rickard believes in showing respect to all
Monday, December 8, 2008
By Rick Wills and Celanie Polanick
After seven terms, retiring Butler County Sheriff Dennis Rickard has a lot to look back on with pride.
Rickard, 60, recently announced he will not run for re-election next year and will retire in 2009 at the end of his term.
In his 28 years, he has brought his office into the computer age and dealt with hundreds of employees, thousands of prisoners and numerous difficult situations that might drive a lesser man to rip off his badge, flatten his hat and go home.
Rickard credits his success -- and his survival -- to his cool head and good manners, his people skills and the people who have supported him, both in and out of the department.
He tries to be kind to everyone, from his employees to the people whose home foreclosures he's had the grim duty of carrying out.
"Even if you can't help them, you can make them feel better," he said.
Rickard graduated from Butler High School in 1966 and holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's of education in guidance and counseling from Slippery Rock State College.
In 1971, he started teaching at colleges and universities, including Butler County Community College, the University of Pittsburgh, Indiana University, Auburn University and Columbia Southern University, the latter two in Alabama.
Last year, he was elected to the executive committee of the National Sheriffs' Association.
Two years ago, Rickard was one of several U.S. sheriffs who spent a week at Scotland Yard, where he studied London's 2005 subway and bus attacks.
At the beginning of his career, he spent almost seven years as a juvenile probation officer, and wanted to make sure he kept his young charges in perspective.
"Most people who deal with juveniles and delinquents do become very callous and burnt out," he said. "If you're working all day with delinquents and all you see is the baddest, the maddest and the saddest of society, you have to do something to balance that."
So he did, parlaying his Eagle Scout status with the Boy Scouts of America into administrative positions at the district and council level.
He continued volunteering with the Scouts and recently earned his 50-year Scouting pin.
He also became a chapter adviser at DeMolay, a Masonic youth organization, and rose to the rank of 33rd-degree Mason as a member of Victory Lodge in Butler.
As for those juvenile delinquents, they still stop by his home or office to thank him sometimes, he said. In fact, one morning, a group of them showed up on his porch to thank him for the discipline and fair treatment he gave them when no one else would.
Today, some are prominent business owners and most are good citizens, Rickard said.
"All of a sudden, they're leaders in the community, and they remember the fact that we helped them out, we didn't put them down or call them names," he said.
Rickard takes the same approach with suspects and criminals of all kinds -- and he believes it's been the key to his department's long record of safety and relative peace.
"If you treat people fairly and with respect, you don't have problems," he said. "You tell them why you're there and what's going on, they understand. You don't lower yourself down, you bring them up -- and then you don't have problems, you don't have the confrontations you see on TV."
For example, not one of Rickard's deputies has ever been killed or shot, and the department transports more than 6,500 prisoners each year without any incidents. "So we have been very lucky," he said.
Part of that may be because he has always taken pains to hire law enforcement personnel with strong communication skills: he wants people whose cool heads and good manners can "turn a riot into a church picnic," he said. "I could teach a monkey to shoot a gun or to drive a car, but you can go to the circus and see that."
When dealing with prisoners, he addresses them as "Mister" so-and-so, and "dealing with the public is, I think, what I like the best," he said. "The people put me here, and they're the ones who kept me here. I owe it to them. It's them that I have to thank."
Scott Roskovski, a Butler County detective and the first candidate in what is expected to be a crowded Republican primary in May, worked under Rickard, also a Republican, for four years.
"It is not an easy job, and he certainly is a survivor. He knows the job and has been in touch with the community," Roskovski said.
Those who know Roskovski say he is almost unbeatable -- but he "certainly would not run against (Rickard)," he said.
Rickard said it is simply time for him to move on.
"I do not want to die at my desk. It's time for someone to take this office to the next level," he said.
How much he slows down is still to be determined.
Other longtime friends and associates say Rickard's popularity stems from his dedication and work ethic.
"It is a bigger and more professional office than it was when he took over," said James Kennedy, a Butler County commissioner. "It is the end of an era for a good sheriff."
Tom King, a Butler lawyer who went to high school with Rickard, praised his friend's civic-mindedness.
"He is constantly giving back. He is very involved in Masonic organizations and is always at almost every fire hall and church picnic."