It has been a rough passage for Alexandria Sheriff James Dunning.
Elected easily last fall after a campaign in which he accused then-Sheriff Michael E. Norris of letting security slide at the city jail, Dunning has seen his first three months in office marked by two highly public and embarrassing events.
On April 3, a prisoner wearing leg irons managed to slip out of a holding cell in the city courthouse. He wasn't arrested until the following day in the District.
Two weeks later, Cassandra Jones, a 25-year-old Prince George's County woman sentenced to 3 1/2 hours in jail for a misdemeanor, spent a weekend forgotten in a tiny holding cell in the courthouse. Vernell Bolton, a deputy sheriff, went home without remembering to release Jones.
Bolton resigned Saturday, but the questions linger in the Sheriff's Department.
"These two incidents have been real difficult for us to get through, no question about it," said Dunning. "I accept all the responsibility for what goes on here, and I've done a whole lot of reflection on what I might have done differently. Short of doing every single job, I just don't know."
When Dunning ran against Norris, a personally controversial Republican whom many city officials praised for his work in improving the sheriff's staff, he hit hard at what he called Norris' lack of attention to the daily details of the job.
"I wonder if Norris has become one of those national all-stars who doesn't even do much for the home town anymore?" Dunning said during a campaign in which he characterized his opponent as a part-time sheriff.
Dunning made the most of the revelation during the campaign that a woman who worked last summer in the sheriff's office was wanted on felony charges in Gastonia, N.C. He also attacked Norris for accepting a $1,500 campaign contribution from the president of a firm that provides health care service to inmates at the city jail.
Dunning, 35, ran a federal probation program before his election, and the sheriff's race was the first election he had entered. As a federal employe, Dunning, a Democrat, was forced to run as an independent.
As sheriff, Dunning oversees more than 110 deputies, a staff that was expanded recently to prepare for the opening of a new city jail this winter. The office is responsible for managing security at the city courthouse, serves more than 65,000 court papers each year and has a $4 million budget to run the jail.
When he was elected, Dunning promised to make no precipitous staff changes, and he has kept that promise. There have been a few lateral shuffles but most administrators have kept their jobs.
"I wasn't excited about Mike's defeat and I thought it was for all the wrong reasons," said one senior department official who asked not to be identified. "But Jim is thorough, fair and conscientious. He looks before leaping."
Then why the trouble?
"We have been trying to straighten out some of the procedures at the jail," said Dunning. "It takes time to get everyone on the right wavelength."
He said that he will send 25 deputies to the next training session at the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Academy and will spend more time making certain that all deputies are trained properly.
He said the staff has implemented a computer tracking system that lets them know where each prisoner is in the system, and why. It also records information that Dunning said had often been absent: bond levels, lawyers' names and dates of discharge. Every day, the computer automatically spits out the names of any person in the jail whose release date has already passed.
So far, none of that has been enough to ensure the smooth operation of the department, although by most accounts the sheriff and his staff have a good record on other aspects of the job -- serving papers, for example. It is the security aspect that is the most visible.
"I don't care to campaign against my own staff," Dunning said last week. "I said there was an absence of ongoing leadership and management. That is what I have devoted my energy to. I think it takes time to make useful changes. I am just thankful these troubles have not been worse than they were."