This year will be Albemarle County Sheriff J.E. “Chip” Harding’s first time working in a sheriff’s office during an election cycle in which he’s not running.
“It’s got to be somewhat disruptive,” he said.
Harding was first elected sheriff in 2007, and in 2015, he anticipated that his third term would be his final time running for the position. He will not be running again in 2019.
“When I retire, I will have spent about 50 years in the justice system,” he said.
During 2019, Harding is planning to have both of his shoulders replaced.
No one has formally declared their candidacy for sheriff yet, but Chief Deputy Chan Bryant and Albemarle County police Lt. Mike Wagner have filed campaign finance reports. Others have approached Harding about potentially running, the sheriff said.
Harding said Bryant has done a tremendous job.
“I’m going to do what I can to support my chief deputy,” he said.
Harding, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he studied social work, had internships in college at the Richmond City Jail, Exodus Halfway House and Beaumont Correctional Facility. In 1974, he began working as a juvenile court probation counselor for the 16th District Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court service unit, which he said was the hardest job he’s ever had.
“You invest so much in the kids, and if they mess up, it just tears you up,” he said.
Harding started working at the Charlottesville Police Department as an officer in 1978. He spent 30 years with the CPD, moving up in rank to captain, until he was sworn in as Albemarle’s sheriff in January 2008.
Harding said he wasn’t looking to leave a legacy.
“There’re so many people who worked just as hard and as effective as I did and never got the attention I got because of either this being a political job, or the fact that I used the media a lot in my drug work; I felt like it could help be a deterrent,” he said.
He’s proud of his work to push for DNA data bank expansion, he said. The General Assembly passed bills in 2018 requiring DNA analysis for people convicted of misdemeanor criminal trespassing or assault and battery.
If he regrets anything, it would be not getting a justice commission together, he said.
Harding wants to create a commission to study best practices and improve the quality of investigations, and ultimately help prevent wrongful convictions. He had assisted in the investigation that freed Michael Hash, who was wrongfully convicted in Culpeper, and also believes Jens Soering, a German national convicted of the brutal homicide of his girlfriend’s Bedford County parents in 1985, was wrongfully convicted.
He reached out to police chiefs, commonwealth’s attorneys and sheriffs in Virginia and asked how many would be interested in starting a justice commission.
“I couldn’t get really any traction with it,” he said.
“Maybe I should have sent stuff out saying, ‘I’m doing a justice commission and would you serve on that,’ and taken more of the responsibility,” he said. “But, on the other hand, I was working Innocence Project cases and pushing DNA expansion, and trying to run the sheriff’s office and trying to go to sleep at night, which I couldn’t always do.”
In his retirement, Harding said he wants to continue working with the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.
“It’s not just about bringing people to Christ, it also provides counseling and it provides, I think, a whole network within the jail. [The chaplain] helps even the employees,” he said. “It has a calming effect on the jail.”
He said a justice commission still needs to happen.
“Maybe I’ll reinvent myself, take a hiatus and even though I’m a civilian, find a way to get traction on that, because it’s got to happen,” Harding said. “It’s just sickening to see wrongful convictions that don’t have to happen.”