Incumbent Cheshire County sheriff faces Republican challenger

Oct. 30—A former area police chief is challenging the incumbent Cheshire County sheriff in the November general election in a race that pits one-time colleagues against each other.

Republican candidate Richard C. Pratt Jr., 55, of Winchester is up against Eli Rivera, 57, of Keene, a Democrat serving his fifth term as county sheriff.

Both Pratt and Rivera have extensive backgrounds in law enforcement and once worked together at the Winchester Police Department.

In separate interviews ahead of the Nov. 8 election, the candidates laid out their qualifications for sheriff and discussed their plans for leading the office. Pratt also spoke to The Sentinel prior to the primary, where he beat his opponent, Jeffrey Selander, handily.

Pratt retired as Nelson police chief in December, after holding the position since 2004. He said he began his law-enforcement career in Winchester in 1988 and has also worked in the Hinsdale, Swanzey and Troy police departments. He currently works as a patrolman in Antrim, he said.

"I've seen how not only the town level, the city level, the county level and federal level has changed," Pratt said. "It's time that we go back to the original grassroots of New Hampshire."

Rivera has held the position of county sheriff for nearly a decade. After serving in the U.S. Coast Guard from 1984 to 1989, Rivera said, he moved to Keene and worked at the county jail for a year. From there he worked at the Winchester Police Department for about a year followed by 22 years with the Keene Police Department, where he retired at the rank of shift commander in 2012, the same year he was first elected sheriff.

"My mission is to treat everyone with dignity, compassion and respect," Rivera said. "No matter what we're dealing with."

Pratt said he has a good relationship with Rivera. However, it's time for a change, he said, adding that his leadership would bring new energy to the office.

With rising inflation, crime will also rise, Pratt predicted, and Cheshire County needs to be ready for that. With many police departments throughout the county lacking staff, he said, the sheriff's office should step in to help.

"What we want to do is re-energize [the sheriff's office]," Pratt said. "Come in and say, 'Let's get going,' reorganize them and redeploy them and put them out there in the streets where they can help and be seen."

In the past 10 years, Pratt said, the county sheriff's budget has doubled, from about $1.1 million in 2010 to a current budget of $2.4 million. With local towns and taxpayers footing the bill, he said, it is important to keep spending under control and ensure all towns are receiving the services they pay for.

Rivera said payroll is the largest expense for the sheriff's office, adding that when he started in the position deputies were being paid about $12 an hour. Today, the starting rate for a new deputy is $21 an hour and the costs of health insurance and benefits have also gone up, he said.

"Understanding that, I've been able to find ways to offset the cost increase with contracts," Rivera said, estimating the sheriff's office raises about half a million dollars in revenues.

In his time as sheriff, the office has increased its revenues by contracting with local communities to provide police services and with the Keene School District to provide truancy work, Rivera said.

Pratt said his understanding of municipal budgets and the law-enforcement needs of small communities would help him tailor the sheriff's office to provide the best services possible for Cheshire County. He said he believes he could reorganize the office's budget to provide more services to the community at no additional cost.

"We're going to look into every corner; there is money that is just not being used good," Pratt said. "It's being used but it's not being used to the advantage of the taxpayer."

As sheriff, Pratt said he would be visible in the community, out patrolling in the field and not solely working behind a desk. Law enforcement officers must treat all people equally, no matter political affiliation, he said, pledging to apply the law evenly.

"[Voters] put a trust into voting you into that position and they want to see you out there among the rank and file," he said. "You've got to lead by example, you can't lead from behind."

Rivera pointed to some of his achievements as sheriff. He said he is proud that the sheriff's office will be implementing a body-worn camera program next month and noted he served on the governor's advisory council on diversity and inclusion.

The sheriff's office has recently completed a major overhaul of its dispatch center, Rivera said, and is now working on a $4 million project to upgrade communications infrastructure at 13 sites throughout the county. This overhaul will provide a second police communications channel for the first time, he said, heightening officer safety and reducing the chances of two contemporaneous emergencies clogging a single channel.

Rivera commended Pratt for his law-enforcement service but said he still has work to do at the sheriff's department. The incumbent sheriff said he knows the local communities well, has an understanding of where the problem spots are and works proactively to reduce crime.

"I have a lot of energy still left in me. I have a lot of ambition and I enjoy this career," Rivera said. "I wouldn't be doing it if I wasn't passionate for it and I'm not planning on going anywhere anytime soon."

Ryan Spencer can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1412, or Follow him on Twitter at