By Peter H. Milliken
Mahoning County Sheriff Randall A. Wellington marvels at the changes in technology and at the growth of local police capabilities during his six-decade law-enforcement career.
Wellington, 79, who retires Jan. 6 after more than 13 years as sheriff, joined the Youngstown Police Department as a patrolman in January 1957, after having been a combat military policeman during the Korean War and a private security guard.
“Our communication was from a call box on a street corner,” Wellington recalled of his early days as a patrolman.
“We had police radios in the cars with just one-way communications. We received the call, but there was no way that the dispatcher would know that we received the call,” Wellington reminisced.
In those days of typewriters and carbon paper, there were no fax machines, cellphones or 911 emergency dispatching centers.
In contrast, today’s law- enforcement officers have data terminals in their cruisers, portable fingerprint readers in the field and cruiser-mounted video cameras that document their activities.
“We have a new record- management system. We call it the paperless system,” which allows instantaneous transmission of reports, the sheriff observed. Eighty video cameras monitor activities in the county jail.
Law-enforcement agencies, including his office, finance higher education for officers pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he noted.
Wellington rose through the ranks in his 41-year career with the city police department, which included 14 years as city police chief, making him the city’s longest-serving police chief.
As city police chief, Wellington was faced with high homicide rates in the mid-1990s, and financial woes forced him to close the city jail and move the inmates to the county jail.
“I was responsible for a new and good relationship with the FBI. The FBI agents worked on the homicide problem,” he said.
Wellington said he is proud of helping to launch as city police chief several highly successful programs that remain in operation today, most notably the regional, multiagency Mahoning Valley drug and violent-crimes task forces and the Crime Stoppers anonymous telephone tip line that offers cash rewards for tips leading to the arrest and conviction of criminals.
Wellington also was a staunch supporter of neighborhood block watches. “When I left, we had 88 crime watches spread out over the city,” he recalled.
Not long after retiring as city police chief, Wellington became county sheriff, succeeding the disgraced Sheriff Phil Chance, who was sentenced to 71 months in federal prison after being convicted of racketeering.
As sheriff, Wellington faced a constant struggle to fund his department sufficiently to keep enough deputies working to properly staff the county jail during a 10-year period of on-again, off-again sales taxes, which were being defeated by the voters, and later during the tax-collection slump associated with the recession that began in 2008.
“The greatest disappointment has always been financing — the roller coaster of the finances,” the sheriff said.
“What really hurt me over the years is not keeping the jail fully open and also having to lay off young deputies,” he said.
The crowding and understaffing of the jail led to a successful inmate lawsuit in 2003, which put the jail under federal court oversight until May 2010.
Even as recently as this year, Sgt. Thomas Assion, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 141, which represents Mahoning County deputy sheriffs, blasted the county commissioners for purportedly having “balanced their budget on the backs of the sheriff’s office and the members of Lodge 141.”
Wellington was reluctant to discuss another major disappointment — the departure of Maj. Michael Budd from his command staff. Budd was sentenced to 97 months in federal prison after being convicted of violating the civil rights of three jail inmates and obstructing justice.
“Maj. Budd made a mistake, and he paid for it,” was all the sheriff would say about Budd.
As sheriff, Wellington listed numerous accomplishments he is proud of:
Negotiating a contract, in which his deputies patrol Canfield Township, which lacks its own police department.
Initiating the money-saving day-reporting work detail, in which offenders perform community service, such as litter pickup and graffiti-removal.
Having six deputies graduate from the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va., with a seventh accepted to attend it in March 2013.
Establishing the department’s senior service unit in 2007 to improve service and reduce victimization of the county’s senior citizens.
“I think it’s time to retire after all these many years in law enforcement,” the sheriff said, adding that it is “time for a younger person to step forward and take over the reins of the office.”
After Wellington decided not to seek re-election this year to the $94,691-a-year sheriff’s job, Jerry Greene defeated two other candidates to win the March 2012 Democratic primary and cruised into office unopposed in the November general election.
“I’m very pleased with Jerry Greene. I supported him, and I would say that this sheriff’s office is in good hands,” Wellington said.
Greene has been with the sheriff’s office for 23 years, having risen to the rank of captain.
In his retirement, Wellington said he wants to visit his relatives in other cities more often, continue his walks in Mill Creek Park and other fitness activities and possibly go on more prayer journeys to a monastery in Genesee, N.Y.
Wellington has a son, Dennis, who resides in Denver, and three grandchildren. The sheriff’s wife, Delores, died in 1996.
A devout Roman Catholic, Wellington is a member of St. Christine Church, which is near his residence on Youngstown’s West Side.
As he prepares to leave office, Wellington has been able to reinstate all laid-off deputies and restore video arraignments to the county jail.
He said Greene, however, will face the challenge of trying to reopen the county’s minimum- security jail, opening parts of the main jail that remain closed and bringing back revenue-generating federal inmates.
“I’ve been fortunate to have very competent staff. The people I’ve worked with are great. They’re real professionals,” Wellington said of his staffs when he was city police chief and as sheriff.
Wellington drew praise from Maj. Michael Fonda, a member of his command staff, who has been with the county since 1991.
“In my whole career here, he has brought more to this department than any other leader,” Fonda said, praising Wellington for his “integrity, ethics and morals.”
Fonda added: “It’s truly an honor and privilege to have served under his command, and I say that from the bottom of my heart.”
Fonda also predicted “a very smooth transition” to Greene because of Greene’s familiarity with the department and its personnel and resources.
“We won’t lose a beat” in the transition, Fonda concluded.