Breckenridge Texan

In depth: Looking back over Will Holt’s first year as Sheriff

In depth: Looking back over Will Holt’s first year as Sheriff
February 15
06:57 2018

When Will Holt was sworn in as the new Stephens County Sheriff at midnight on Jan. 1, 2017, he had some definite ideas about what he wanted to accomplish as the new head law enforcement officer for the county. Earlier this month, after a little more than a year in office, he sat down with the Breckenridge Texan for an in-depth interview about how that first year went, including the department’s accomplishments, as well as some things that didn’t necessarily go as planned.

“Starting off, it’s a whirlwind – and I don’t mean that in a negative way,” Holt said. “This first year has gone by very quickly, both personally and professionally. Professionally, anytime you’re doing something new, time just flies by. Personally, we had a couple of deaths in our family, in my immediate family and in my wife’s family. And, of course, we have – now – a 17-month old, but when I first started, she was 4 or 5 months old. So, things have gone fast.”

Sheriff Will Holt

Holt came into the job with more than 10 years of experience in law enforcement, as well as a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s degree in criminology/criminal justice. He is in the dissertation phase of his doctoral studies in criminal justice, which he is scheduled to finish up by the end of next year.

His office inside the Stephens County Law Enforcement Center is simply decorated with his diplomas and certificates, as well as a couple of photos of his young daughter. Holt’s desk is clean and well-organized but obviously the work station of a busy person. All sorts of notices hang on bulletin boards around the room. The white board directly across from the desk features not only a list of the department’s staff but also two statements the sheriff wrote at the top: “Christ before Sheriff!” and “Marathon not sprint.”

“It is an absolute pleasure to do what I love to do in my hometown,” the sheriff said. “This position – and this first year – has been one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done but also one of the most challenging things.”

When he first took office, Holt says, he chose to set some broad goals, rather than attempt to lay out more specific missions for an office he had never worked in before. The department has six sworn peace officers – four patrol officers, the chief deputy and the sheriff – as well as 13 detention officers, including two supervisors, and two civilians, the office manager and the facilities manager.

“I didn’t know what I would experience and what I would be dealing with when I took over,” he said. “I didn’t know that first month, two or three, what would happen staff-wise, personnel-wise, how I would be able to build my leadership team. And, so, I didn’t make a lot of finite goals. But, broad goals were we were going to increase the integrity of the office and, very similar but also distinctive, we were going to increase professionalism with this office. And, we’ve done well as a group to accomplish those.”

Along with professionalism, Holt said he wanted to improve the customer service experience for community members who encountered Sheriff’s Office employees – both in public and in the office. With that in mind, one of the first things he did to improve the public’s perception of the department was to remove the dark tint over the reception window inside the Law Enforcement Center. “People had told me during the campaign, ‘When I come to the Sheriff’s Office, there’s nobody to talk to; I can’t see through that reflective tinted window,’” he said. “So, we took that tint down, and we’ve gotten raves and raves of comments.”

Stephens County Sheriff Will Holt, right, stops to talk Lt. J. Reynolds in the kitchen of the jail. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

A more concrete goal that Holt had set for the Sheriff’s Office was getting the jail back in compliance. In 2016, the jail had failed state inspections and was not considered to be in compliance with state jail standards.

“I have a great staff back there (in the jail), and the jail, when I took over, was already in compliance; they just hadn’t had the re-inspection done yet,” he said. “So, my goal was to make sure when the re-inspection came, which was just a couple of weeks into my first month, was to pass that re-inspection for compliance, which occurred. And, that’s due to the jail staff. They had improved things back there.”

Another goal the new sheriff set for himself and the department was improving community engagement. “That goes hand-in-hand with professionalism and customer service, but as an elected official, it’s my job is to engage the community,” he said. “It’s definitely been a team effort.”

To achieve that goal, Holt put himself out into the community, visiting schools and civic organizations, and hosting events, such as bicycle registrations. As part of that goal, the sheriff and the deputies often write short notes on the backs of their business cards and leave them at citizens’ houses and businesses to let them know they have been out patrolling the area.

In addition to being in the community physically, Holt has also made the Sheriff’s Office more visible on social media. “We are very active on Facebook,” he said. “We’ve used that to great success to spread all kinds of information out there that the citizens need and/or want. It gives citizens another way to contact us.”

In his ongoing efforts to keep the public informed of the Sheriff’s Office’s activities, Holt introduced the department’s weekly summary, which the Breckenridge Texan posts each week. Click here to see a collection of summaries from this week and the past 25 weeks.

Another big goal Holt had a year ago was to restore the teamwork environment with the Breckenridge Police Department.

“It’s no secret that that relationship was strained,” the sheriff said. “We’ve worked hard – as has the PD – to step across that lobby and literally work cases together or sometimes just go get a meal together. We consider that a success, to be able to share criminal intelligence with them, to back them up on calls and they back us up on calls and work cases together. In fact, we have had multiple drug-dealing investigations that we’ve worked (with the PD).”

Looking back over his first year as sheriff, Holt admits there are some things that didn’t go exactly as he had planned.

The biggest challenge has been changing the culture – the mindset – of the Sheriff’s Office, he said. “About how and why business should be conducted as I see fit. We are moving in the right direction, but any time you have a new leader come in, the new leader is going to have a different vision, a new way of doing things,” Holt said. “What I wanted the culture of this organization to be was quite a bit different from what it had been. That’s not a matter of good or bad, necessarily; it’s just different.”

After growing up in Breckenridge, Holt left the community for 18 years, pursuing his education and working in other places before returning. “I’ve tried to take the best parts of all that, in my opinion, and bring it here,” he said. “Some of it has taken off really well, and some of it takes a lot of selling and a lot of explaining, but that’s OK. That’s my job. That occurs at any job, at any agency.”

The new sheriff is quick to point out that his first year on the job included a lot of learning opportunities for himself, as well as for the department’s staff. “I had a huge learning curve, too,” he said. “This isn’t just about Will Holt coming in and taking over. This was about Will Holt trying to learn every aspect about how this office functions. I’ve gotten through the majority of the learning curve, but there’s still going to be things every week that I learn.”

The biggest lesson he’s learned on the job is patience, the sheriff says, and he admits that he’s still learning that lesson. “I wrote this up there (on the white board) on the first day I came in: Marathon, not sprint. I wrote it up there to remind me that this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Holt said. “I was probably naively optimistic on some things. It’s not that we’re not going to accomplish them, it’s just that my optimism was probably not realistic on some things. We’re moving in the right direction, but I have had to learn another level of patience. We’re getting to where we need to be, but it’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint, and I have to remind myself of that.”

Holt singled out the fitness program for the department as one of the areas that he was overly optimistic about in the beginning. Although all of the Sheriff’s Office employees have not yet met the fitness goals Holt has set for the department, they continue to make progress, he said.

To encourage fitness, Holt converted a spare room into an exercise room and used federal seizure money to purchase a rowing machine and a Total Gym machine.

“The goal is to use positive peer pressure to get everyone to use the equipment,” he said.

Problems with the Law Enforcement Center building also presented challenges to the new sheriff. “On a weekly or monthly basis, you handle problems with the building, whether it’s plumbing or electrical. Those aren’t things I wasn’t expecting, but those are challenges or hurdles that are sometimes difficult to face,” he said. “The building was finished and moved in to in 2010, so here we are in 2018 – things are going to wear out and go wrong. Those are interesting and challenging things that are not related to anything to do with law enforcement or the jail.”

Holt said one thing that he expected to do that he hasn’t was create a website for the department. “I thought for sure we’d get a website,” he said. “Then, we got the social media page going. With social media the way that it is, I don’t know that a website is needed.”

Some of the other accomplishments Holt mentions include:

  • Expanding the faith-based ministries to two days a week for both the male and female inmates. Holt said he still needs a couple of volunteers – both male and female – to conduct the faith-based ministries on Sundays.
  • Applying for and receiving three grants that will be used for obtaining and training a police dog for the department, purchasing active shooter body armor, and upgrading the incident reporting system the Sheriff’s Office uses.
  • Coming in under budget for 2017 for both the law enforcement division budget and the jail/building budget.
  • Arranging to obtain new vehicles for the department, including two half-ton, 4-wheel drive Chevy trucks, and a Tahoe that will be fully outfitted for the new police dog.
  • Serving several search warrants that resulted in recovered stolen property and information that was turned over to the District Attorney’s office.
  • Saving money by reducing the cost of lodging when staff members attend out-of-town training. One officer stayed with a friend, and the jail administrator opted for a less expensive hotel when attending a training session.
  • Working with the Breckenridge Airshow organizers to ensure a safe and secure event when the airshow was reintroduced to the community after a 20-year hiatus.
  • Building strong relationships with federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, DEA, ATF, ICE and Border Patrol.
  • Adding five volunteers who help with a variety of office duties, such answering phones, data entry and more.
  • Clearing every sexual assault report made to the Sheriff’s Office in 2017 and 2018 through arrests. Additionally, all of the 2017 sexual assault cases have been forwarded to the DA’s office for prosecution, including two that involved crimes against children and for which the suspects have been indicted.
  • Ensuring that the sex offender database is up-to-date.

One change that Holt has noticed in the department – though he doesn’t categorize it as an accomplishment or a challenge – is an increase in the number of inmates in the jail. Typically, the Stephens County jail houses two to six female inmates and 25 to 35 male inmates, but lately the number of male inmates has been in the upper 30s or lower 40s. The sheriff said he can’t pinpoint a specific reason for the increase in the jail population.

“Some of it is a little bit more proactiveness on the Sheriff Office’s part,” he said. “Just in the last month or so, we’ve made a lot more warrant arrests than we had been. So, that’s a compliment and kudos to my deputies.”

Other potential reasons for more people being in the jail include more arrests from any of the other arresting agencies in the county, a delay in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system in ordering the transfer of prisoners from the jail to a specific prison unit.

Looking forward to the rest of 2018, Holt said he wants the Sheriff’s Office to be even more proactive in arrests and investigations.

The past year was about getting settled in to a new way of doing things and making sure the department became a cohesive unit. “When you’re doing that, you’re not out there catching bad guys at the rate I want to get to, so I want to see our number of arrests, our number of successful investigations go up, amount of drugs seized go up, amount of search warrants served to increase,” Holt said.

With one year under his belt, the sheriff makes it clear that, while he’s proud of what the department has accomplished, he still has plans for additional improvements.

“My goal is that in three, four or five years, we can look back and say that we are one of the best rural sheriff’s offices in the state of Texas,” Holt said. “The aspects of traditional law enforcement and sheriff’s offices that are good…that we’ve maintained and retained those… but that we are also modern, professional and current or ahead of the learning curve of where law enforcement is going in this nation.”


Story by Carla McKeown/Breckenridge Texan

Cutline, top photo: Sheriff Will Holt and Detention Officer B. Lancaster look over the bank of monitors that help the staff keep an eye on everything that goes on in the Stephens County Jail. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)


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