Bristol County’s new sheriff will be taking office sometime in January, but he could make himself hard to spot. He doesn’t plan to wear the uniform — white shirt, dark slacks, seven-pointed brassy badge — or a sidearm on his hip. He’s not figuring on making media splashes by announcing big or controversial new initiatives, at least not right away.
Paul Heroux, who is now the mayor of Attleboro, says he plans a low-key entrance to the job he won on Tuesday, unseating the high-profile Thomas M. Hodgson, who held the post for 25 years and consistently showed a gift for making headlines — even national and international ones.
Heroux, who met with reporters Wednesday morning on the back lawn of his compact red house off a wide shopping strip in Attleboro, is not figuring to focus his effort on the sorts of activities with strong media impact, even if he hopes they’ll make a difference in the lives of inmates in his custody.
While Hodgson would sometimes wear a sidearm when he was out in public, Heroux said he hoped he would not need to carry a weapon. He said he associated the gun, the badge and the uniform with a law enforcement role that he does not see as a significant part of the sheriff’s authority. He also said the uniform seemed too formal to suit his usually informal style.
At the news conference, as in the campaign, he emphasized the role of the sheriff in running the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford and the Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth.
In remarks to reporters, Heroux emphasized yesterday that he wants to devote his time to working on preparing inmates to get out and back into the world and not return. He said he’ll put particular emphasis on the elements that make for successful “re-entry,” as the expression goes: housing, continuity in health care, a job.
He said he wants to go a step beyond “evidence-based” programs to turn Bristol County institutions into a “national model of evidence-producing corrections.” Also not sexy headline material, but a move he says would mean that the organization is not only following practices that have been shown to work, but also studying results and making them public without fear of exposing its own failings.
And there will be failings, he said, or at least falling short of highest aspirations.
It’s a point he made repeatedly during the campaign, distinguishing himself from his opponent by saying that he admits when he makes a mistake. Without that kind of acknowledgment, he asked, how can the agency improve?
And there will be examination. By the agency itself, and also by outside experts. Including, among other things, inmate suicides.
During the campaign Heroux emphasized the number of suicides of inmates in Bristol County custody as a mark of Hodgson’s poor management.
Not only was the toll of 23 suicides since 2006 the highest for any county in the state during that time, but Hodgson never acknowledged that this revealed a problem in his agency. During the campaign and in the last several years when the issue arose, he insisted the department always followed proper procedures, consistently praised his staff as the best in the country, and for sometimes taking steps to prevent suicides beyond what was strictly recommended.
Yesterday, Heroux acknowledged that he is not an authority on inmate suicide, but that he would enlist such authorities from outside the department to look at the operation of the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford and the Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth. He would hope in this way to find the weak spots, to understand how deaths might be prevented.
He could not promise to eradicate inmate suicide, he said. That would be impossible. But the number could be brought down to the level of other counties.
He said he would take the same approach to the question of what to do about Ash Street. The regional lockup — accommodating at most about 200 people, most of them awaiting legal proceedings, not serving sentences — is housed in a brick building that opened in 1888 and is believed to be the oldest or one of the oldest still-working jails in the country.
Activists have demanded that the place be closed, but Heroux is making no such promises. Again, he says the question has to be examined, lest the closing solve one problem and create others.
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He said he has no plans to reopen the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center on the North Dartmouth campus, a project Hodgson initiated that was once the only dedicated center in Massachusetts run under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Heroux said he would reconsider reopening if ICE called for help, but he’d rather leave immigration enforcement to the federal government.
“I don’t think that’s the best use of my time,” he said.
That time starts soon, as he’ll be submitting his resignation shortly to the City of Attleboro, moving toward a date to start as sheriff in January, mostly likely in the khakis and jeans he found most comfortable as mayor. For now, he said, time to rest from something like 500 days of campaigning for the Democratic primary and the general election that ended Tuesday.
As of Wednesday afternoon he and Hodgson had not spoken. Hodgson had not called to concede, which Heroux said is not unusual in his experience of winning seven straight campaigns for state representative, mayor and now sheriff.
Nonetheless, Heroux got the word of Hodgson’s acknowledgment, and went home feeling “just glad it’s over.”
Email New Bedford Light reporter Arthur Hirsch at email@example.com.