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New Douglas County sheriff works to restore trust

ARMOUR -- Douglas County's new sheriff has one main goal: improve the image of county law enforcement. Jon Coler, a 24-year-old Armour native, applied for the vacant sheriff's position last fall when former Sheriff Troy Strid resigned. Strid had ...

New sheriff
Recently appointed Douglas County Sheriff Jon Coler talks in his office Tuesday about how he plans to improve public perception of the sheriff's office. (Chris Huber/Republic)
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ARMOUR -- Douglas County's new sheriff has one main goal: improve the image of county law enforcement.

Jon Coler, a 24-year-old Armour native, applied for the vacant sheriff's position last fall when former Sheriff Troy Strid resigned. Strid had been acquitted of embezzlement charges in September, which included allegations of him pocketing money from the sale of publicly owned items.

"Right now, I'm trying to follow the letter of the law," Coler said.

The Douglas County commissioners appointed Coler as sheriff in November and, since then, Coler has had a whirlwind introduction to county law enforcement. He said his first day was overwhelming. For his second day, he decided to get some advice and called on Lincoln County Sheriff Dennis Johnson, with whom Coler previously worked.

Coler also gets advice from Chamberlain Police Chief Joe Hutmacher, for whom Coler worked prior to becoming Douglas County sheriff.

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After Strid's resignation, Deputy Rob Hotchkiss pleaded guilty to grand theft as part of an insurance scheme -- unrelated to Strid's case -- and also resigned. Given that recent history, Coler said he is taking Hutmacher's advice seriously.

"The best advice he gave me is to treat everyone the same, always be consistent and don't base something on just the situation. He told me to remember I work for the people, not anybody else," Coler said.

Law enforcement has been Coler's lifelong ambition. He explored other options, but his sister, who is a police officer in Pierre, helped keep his interest in law enforcement high. When he thought a different career path might be a better option during college, Coler said ride-alongs with police officers helped him stay on track.

Once he graduated from the University of South Dakota with a degree in criminal justice, Coler became a certified law enforcement officer through academy training in Pierre.

After nearly two years of experience at Chamberlain, his desire to return home coincided with an opportunity to apply for the sheriff appointment.

"I was surprised," he said of being appointed. "It happened quicker than I thought it would. It didn't set in until I got here what I'd gotten myself into."

His wife, Abby, who is from Delmont, was also excited about the prospect of living in her home county again. She is serving as a registered nurse with the U.S. Army at Fort Riley in Kansas until October 2013.

Given the county's recent experience with law officers on the wrong side of the law, Coler said he's learned to question everything and to watch for signs of corruption.

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So far, Coler said he's had a positive experience serving the people of Douglas County. With the help of part-time deputy Neal Moad, Coler initiated a drug bust in Delmont last month. Two people were arrested and charged with the manufacture and possession of methamphetamines, among other charges.

He said the bust was a boost to his confidence, especially knowing that law enforcement agencies -- including Douglas County, Corsica Police and the South Dakota Highway Patrol -- could work together so well.

Moad informed Coler of the situation in Delmont in November and they worked on the case, which came together more quickly than anticipated, Coler said.

"I was glad we got it," Coler said. "When it first came up, I thought it would take months and months."

Coler is confident enough in his abilities that he plans to run for election to a full term this fall. For now, his attention is focused on hiring a new deputy and later moving his third-floor office to the ground floor of the courthouse.

In the next 10 months, Coler hopes to reinstate the public's trust in the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. He said the county has a "black eye" right now due to recent corruption and negative situations. He said the ability to get out of the office, take "roads I didn't know where they went," and meet the people of Douglas County has been exciting so far. He said the residents are hoping to see a change in law enforcement.

"It's going to take a while to get the public's respect back," he said. "I hope to get our image built back up and let people know we're out doing whatever we can to enforce the law."

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