OCSO investigations division built on relationships, attention to detail
By Eric Sprott
WALHALLA — Like most of his coworkers, Gentry Hawk of the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office does his best to leave work in its proper place — the office — when he goes home for the night.
That being the case, it’s understandable he also doesn’t make it a point to get caught up watching police dramas when he sits down to unwind with some TV.
But, he admitted, it wasn’t all that long ago when he caught a glimpse of a show where investigators put up a tripod that scanned the room for fingerprints, making their job virtually effortless.
In his role overseeing the criminal investigations division unit, the lieutenant knows that’s something that’s not exactly feasible at the county level, and it’s just as well that piece of technology remains in a fictional realm.
“It’d be nice to have that, but we have to dust, look, hunt and figure out what peopled touched and just hope we get good prints,” said Hawk, who’s been at the sheriff’s office for 19 years.
His superior, Capt. Greg Reed, heads up the investigations division of the sheriff’s office, and he, too, is fully aware that the work that goes on in his division isn’t anything like what people may see on TV. It’s quite the opposite, really, as the sheriff’s office’s approach to solving crime is definitively old school and not as high-tech as some might believe.
“It’d be wonderful to go into a room, set up some cameras or throw some fingerprint dust around and feed it into a computer that spits out a bunch of people,” he said. “It doesn’t happen like that, because investigations is a lot of old-fashioned police work.
“Guys call it getting out and beating the bushes, and that’s what they do.”
Under the investigations umbrella, there’s a large staff that Reed oversees.
Not only are there 11 specialized criminal investigators who likely fit the vision most people have, there are two victims advocates, two evidence technicians and an officer in community services. Also under that umbrella are eight school resource officers, six animal control officers and the county sex offender registrar.
And in investigations, the day-to-day grind doesn’t necessarily involve a lot of action. What it does include, however, is no shortage of paperwork — to the point where Reed said it can feel overwhelming.
“There’s a lot of stuff they can do sitting at their desk, but it’s constantly phone calls, taking notes and making notes,” he said.
“The paperwork isn’t fun, but it’s a necessary evil,” added Sgt. David Philpott, who oversees crime scene investigations and is nearing the 16-year mark with the sheriff’s office. “We may work a scene for a few hours, but once we get back here, then you’re talking a couple of days of paperwork.”
And in terms of “beating the bushes,” when the paperwork takes at least a temporary backseat, those in investigations have to be outgoing, Hawk said, as part of the day-to-day grind is being able to go out in the community, build relationships and find and follow up on leads.
“A lot of this job is about personalities, too,” Hawk said. “You have to be able to talk to people, because you interview a lot of people and you have to know how to talk to people and where to go to get your information.”
‘You try not to think about it’
Sheriff Mike Crenshaw has spent the majority of his time in law enforcement in criminal investigations and community services, so he knows well the toll the job can take on someone in multiple facets.
“I know in many cases they start with little or no leads in a case,” he said. “It can consume your off-duty time as well, because you only have one opportunity in some cases to take advantage of a potential lead in a case.”
Reed pointed out the importance of being able to shut off away from the job, as the drive to build a case can tear at an investigator— while some cases can simply tear them from an emotional standpoint as well.
“You have to learn how to cut it on and cut it off,” he said. “When you first come into the job, things you see can weigh heavy on your heart, but you have to learn how to deal with it. If you take it home, you can make everyone’s life miserable.”
Hawk has investigated child abuse for nearly 15 years, and he still remembers all too well some of the cases that haunted him.
Early in his career, a murder case involving a 4-year-old boy took a toll on him, admittedly troubling him for a number of years.
“It’s been real hard sometimes,” Hawk said. “When you talk to kids and get to know them and what they’ve been through, it’s really sad, even in our small community. It’s hard not to get emotional, but you have to let it go and deal with it another time.
“When we’re not being real serious, we like to keep it loose up here, because if you’re serious all the time, you’ll go crazy in this division.”
Philpott has seen his share of grisly crime scenes as well — predating his time in evidence.
“When I was on the road, I had one where I didn’t sleep for a week,” he said. “You kind of have to get into a mode where you just don’t think about it, and you just work the scene. The problem is when you get some downtime, it finally sets in and you just have to learn to keep work at work and not dwell on that sort of stuff.
“For the most part, you just try not to think about it.”
‘For the public’
Likewise, Sgt. Kelly Winchester also does her best not to dwell on some of the things she deals with on a daily basis as the sex offender registrar for the sheriff’s office.
A veteran of the sheriff’s office since 2011 and the registrar since 2013, she helped oversee the registration of roughly 180 sex offenders last year who have to register a given number of times per year based on the severity of their offenses.
And while she has an office largely tucked away from the rest of her coworkers in the investigations division, she shares their pain in terms of paperwork.
“It’s a lot of paperwork, and probably more than most jobs in law enforcement,” she said. “It’s an eye-opener if you haven’t gotten in there and looked at anything. In this job, you have to be a stickler about details.”
By and large, Winchester said she doesn’t have many issues with those who have to regularly visit her office. Out of 613 registrations last year, she only had to sign seven warrants for failure to register, which she felt was a pretty solid ratio.
“If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, you deal with the consequences,” she said.
And her personal feelings about some of the charges those on the registry face aside, she said what she does is for the public.
“I know the offenders feel like they have a lifelong punishment since it’s a lifetime registration, but that’s not what it is,” she said. “The state supreme court has said it’s to make the public aware who’s in their neighborhoods, and this really is for the public.”
Worth the work
Serving the public is something Reed has done while wearing a number of different hats in his 32 years at the sheriff’s office. He started in uniform patrol — as most officers do — before eventually becoming the second-ever investigator assigned to child abuse at the sheriff’s office.
He still harbors a particular disdain for child abuse and domestic violence, and he knows the kind of strong, meticulous person it takes to deal with those crimes and others his division deals with every day.
When considering a hire, he pulls body-camera footage to see how potential fits react in stressful situations, and in incident reports, he wants details and officers who vigorously follow up on their cases.
And for those starting out in investigations, he knows it can be difficult — as the officers who aren’t out front on the road facing the daily dangers the public is keenly aware of are behind the scenes facing their own unique challenges, too.
“It can go from monotonous to very frustrating at times, because most of the people we deal with — not the victims — are not going to be honest with us 85 percent of the time,” he said. “When we interview them, we have to pick the truths out that they tell, if any.”
But, for all the long hours, bad leads, missing evidence and fingerprint samples that fail to make a match, there’s still satisfaction out there to be had.
“As officers, we’re not out here just to arrest people — we’re trying to make a difference in so many ways,” he said. “We’re the first ones condemned a lot of times, but we’re also the first ones called.
“But when that one person says thank you, or you can see the relief on someone’s face that you’ve helped, it makes it all worth it.”
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