Former Highland Sherriff Talks About 30 Year Career In Highland County – Part Two
Monterey, Virginia – Herbert R. Lightner served with the Highland County Sheriff’s Office for nearly three decades. He began as a deputy in 1981 and was elected Sheriff in 1986 with 93% of the vote. In last week’s report, Lightner discussed his early years growing up in Bath and Highland counties and how he got started with the Sheriff’s Department.
In this week’s report, the second of three, Lightner describes his early days as a deputy and sheriff and how things changed during his first 15 years on the force. Lightner says, more than anything else, his family background prepared him to be sheriff.
“Really, that starts at family level,” he said. “You know, your family values and my parents had strong family values. Christian people – just nice country folk. My whole family has been successful based on those factors.”
The former sheriff says he enjoyed strong community support during his early days as deputy and sheriff.
“At first, I thought it was relatively easy because you had a lot of community support,” he said. “If a crime was committed, people called in and reported it and they’d help you.”
Although officers had strong community support, they worked alone in 1970s and early 1980s.
“Back at one time, you knew you were going to be by yourself,” said Lightner. “If you was coming upon a fight that had 11 people in it, you was just going to have to deal with it – period. Now, we try to keep officer safety as our top priority and we send the necessary people to the scene that we think is appropriate.”
Lightner says he relied on parents to handle juvenile infractions during his early career.
“Juveniles, we didn’t charge them,” he said. “We took them home to their parents and their parents took care of them and you never saw them for awhile. It was just taken care of. I’ve been taken home, myself.”
“My dad took the keys from me one time and hung them up on the wall and they stayed up there for about six weeks and I didn’t think about asking him for them back. Then, one day, he said, ‘you can have the keys back now.'”
Parents became less willing to discipline their children, says the former sheriff.
“That changed at a certain point, I don’t know when, from that to, if you took the kid home, they believed the kid more than they did the police officer,” he said. ‘The police are picking on my kid and wasn’t catching these other kids.'”
Many first offenders were not forced into the criminal justice system 25-30 years ago.
“Back in the early days, if you caught a local guy who you hadn’t had no trouble with, that just came out on a Saturday night, and you pulled him over for driving under the influence, you either hid his keys or took him home,” he said. “My policy was one time. We really didn’t stop drunk drivers unless they were going from ditch to ditch because it took about four hours to process that person. If you were working alone and you were in here processing a DUI for four hours and you got another call for services, there wasn’t nobody else to do it. Right or wrong, that’s how it was done.”
Lightner explains why the policy changed.
“They started telling us about the same thing happening and the guy didn’t set there and went and killed somebody,” he said. “Then, it became a policy, you know, you can’t do that no more.”
The former sheriff says a crime in California affected how domestic disputes are handled nationwide.
“Another thing, in them days, if your spouse wanted to get a warrant on you, we’d bring you in and help you get a warrant and arrest the suspect,” he said. “But it wasn’t mandatory. If they didn’t want to do it, we didn’t do it. We didn’t arrest nobody. But, with the thing with the famous football player – Nicole Brown, when she got killed – it’s mandatory now that you arrest the primary physical aggressor.”
Lightner says his relationship with the community changed, starting after his first 10 years on the force – about 20 years ago.
“The same person that you arrested for drunk driving 30 years ago, that would speak to you on the street, the next day and didn’t talk about it – 20 years ago they’d be trying to get me in trouble for something,” he said. “You know, saying, ‘he’s running around on his wife or he uses drugs or I saw him drinking; just making stuff up.”
In next Thursday’s final installment, Lightner discusses his last 10 years as sheriff and tells why he thinks the relationship between the Highland County community and law enforcement has changed so drastically.