LOUISA — There’s a new sheriff in town and things are going to change. Just not a whole lot.
In fact, shifts could be hard to notice.
Louisa County voters in November promoted Maj. Donny Lowe to sheriff to replace Ashland Fortune, who served more than a half-century in law enforcement, including more than 30 years with the town of Louisa and 20 years as Louisa’s sheriff.
Lowe is no rookie himself. He has spent 33 years in law enforcement, including 30 years in the county sheriff’s office as a patrol officer, investigator and administrator.
“I don’t think most people will see a lot of changes because we think a lot alike and we pretty much know what each other is thinking, even if we don’t agree,” Lowe said, settling in behind his new desk adorned with a new nameplate.
“As of Jan. 1, we rehired everybody,” Lowe said — a new constitutional officer can choose to either keep or let go of staff. “There will be some changes and we’re going to work on community policing and our chaplaincy program. We’ve done really well with our programs over the years.”
Lowe said the department will continue to be accessible to the community and the media about investigations and programs.
“One of the goals was to have a friendly department. That can be difficult when you’re enforcing laws, but we wanted citizens to feel comfortable talking with our deputies,” Lowe said. “We’ve made it a point to be as transparent as possible and we want to let people know what is going on as far as we can. We hope they understand why we sometimes can’t say something.”
Lowe said the sheriff’s department operates like a team, something that both he and Fortune made a priority.
“We try to be both reactive and respond to events and crime and proactive in trying to prevent it or see what’s coming our way,” Lowe said. “We can’t be too heavy on being either proactive or reactive because there are consequences if you focus too much on one or the either. It’s a balance we always try to hit.”
Fortune was the first African American elected as Louisa County sheriff and, before that, was one of the few black police officers in Virginia when the town of Louisa hired him in 1964. He served as the town’s police chief from the 1960s until he succeeded Henry Kennon, who had been sheriff of Louisa for 36 years, in 1999.
Fortune said creating a sense of cooperation among officers and with the community was a goal he had when he was first elected.
“I’m very proud of the employees and officers in the department and how they work well together,” Fortune said. “We changed a lot of things back when I first got elected. We got everyone working as a team.”
Fortune took over a sheriff’s office of 27 people. He left a department with 90.
“It was in bad shape when I got here. I had 22 priorities I wanted to accomplish when I got elected, and in the first 18 months they were taken care of,” he said. “I’m proud of the changes we made and of the professionalism the department now has.”
Fortune inherited Lowe in that first election and the two found themselves to be kindred spirits with goals of modernizing the department.
“There were a lot of people in the county that didn’t think we’d be able to pull it off, but we did,” Lowe said. “We changed the rules and we were very straightforward about those rules. We saw some turnover but we were able to hire some very good people.”
One change was the addition of several criminal investigators. Before Fortune’s election, the department only had one.
“We determined that there was a need and added investigators. Then we started looking at old case files that had gone cold and figured there were about 100 files we could solve,” Lowe said.
“We added six investigators and those guys are good,” Fortune said. “When we have a situation, we sit down around the table and discuss the process, what we want to do, where we need to go with the investigation, and we go do it. We’ve had some big cases and we’ve been able to do a good job of serving the county.”
One of Fortune’s first moves when he took the office was to make Lowe a major and his second-in-command. Although the two shared a lot of ideas, they also had their differences.
“We agreed on a lot of things, but we had some knockdown and drag-outs, too,” Fortune laughed. “But we’d always get it together.”
“We’re usually on the same sheet of music, although every now and then we’ve differed,” Lowe admitted. “I had it in my mind that I’d come in with him and go out with him, but it kind of evolved into this. He was ready to leave and I wanted to stay around and do more.”
Fortune said looking beyond the present is important when running the office.
“It’s not just what you want to get done — it’s how that will impact the citizens and the county and the department in the future. You have to think ahead. You can’t just think about now,” he said.
It should be no surprise that Lowe agrees.
“I’m a stickler for tailoring everything we do, every program we implement, for our county. When we were looking at the DARE program for drugs, we looked at the statistics for it and decided it just wasn’t going to work the way we wanted it to, so we got rid of it and implemented our own based on what was going on in our county,” Lowe said.
“We found a lot of the time that the kids weren’t listening because they don’t live in Baltimore or Chicago and they didn’t see a correlation. In this program, we use a lot of instances and discussion points that come from the county,” Lowe said. “We don’t use names, but the situations. Most of the time they’ve heard of something similar, so they pay closer attention and the point gets across. They can relate it to their hometown.”
For Fortune, leaving the sheriff’s office is going to be a change.
“In law enforcement, every day is different. You have different things happening and you have to adjust day-to-day. You get used to that,” he said. “You get used to not getting home on a regular time because something happened. That’s going to be difficult at first.”
Fortune has no doubt that Lowe will succeed as his successor.
“He’s a smart young man. He’s going to do fine and he knows he can call me whenever he wants,” Fortune said. “I’ll always be here for him, the department and the county.”