Three vying for Hampton sheriff in Democratic primary race

Peter Dujardin, The Virginian-Pilot
·9 min read

The Democratic primary for Hampton sheriff pits the office’s longtime top deputy against two candidates with long ties to the Hampton Police Division.

Karen Bowden, 62 — who’s been at the sheriff’s office for 36 years — was second-in-command for 22 years under Sheriff B.J. Roberts, who died in December.

The City Council appointed Bowden to fill the sheriff’s spot until voters have their say in this year’s election for the four-year term.

She’s facing off against Curtis Cooper, 58, who’s been a Hampton police officer for 37 years, and John A. “Tony” Perkins, 65, a former Air Force airman who worked for 20 years as a Hampton police officer and four years as a Hampton sheriff’s deputy before retiring in 2019.

With a budget of $9.5 million, the Hampton sheriff oversees the Hampton City Jail and a jail annex, which house about 290 inmates. The sheriff also provides security at three courthouses, transports inmates and serves lawsuits and other legal paperwork to defendants.

The primary election will be held June 8, with early voting running through June 5. It’s an open primary, and all registered voters can cast ballots at 1919 Commerce Drive, Suite 280.

The general election will be held Nov. 2, though no other candidates have so far thrown their hat in the ring.Here’s a brief rundown on each candidate:

Karen Bowden

Bowden began at the sheriff’s office in 1984 as a 25-year-old deputy.

A Smithfield native, she’s the first woman to lead the Hampton Sheriff’s Office and one of eight women sheriffs in Virginia.

Though the state says it will pay for 175 staffers — deputies and others — at the Hampton sheriff’s office, there are only about 125 employees now on the payroll. That means about 50 positions, or 29 percent of the office’s allotted positions, are vacant.

Asked if that was a concern, Bowden said yes. “Absolutely, absolutely it is,” she said. “It is an area that I’ve looked at immediately.”

Bowden said that she’s formed a “retention and recruitment team” internally, and that she’s looking at recruiting 18-year-olds to join the law enforcement academy right out of high school.

The Hampton sheriff’s office isn’t the only local office struggling to keep deputies, she said, adding that many law enforcement agencies have struggled with the same problem the past three years.

“That’s across that’s across the Peninsula,” Bowden said. “That’s across the Southside. That’s nationwide.”

The Hampton City Jail is “an aging facility,” Bowden said, and she has begun discussions with City Manager Mary Bunting, Mayor Donnie Tuck and others about getting it replaced.

“We can’t look at it as bricks and mortar,” she said. “Yes, we know it has to be bricks and mortar, but we have to look at it (with) a perspective of community.”

The jail has to be built for “the success of the person that’s been incarcerated,” Bowden said. “We want them to feel that they are in a place where there’s a step down system” to “reintegrate them back into our community.”

In her first several months on the job, Bowden said she’s met with lots of internal staff to hear their concerns and suggestions on operations. “I wanted to make sure they understood that they have a voice, and their voice matters,” she said.

She’s also met with judges, court clerks and the Hampton police chief, as well as Bunting, the city budget director and other “stakeholders,” also to improve operations.

Bowden says morale among deputies is good, and says she’s focusing on “staff wellness” and looking out for families. Deputy training, she said, is being adjusted to make it more “scenario-based.”

Her rivals contend the significant staff shortage among Hampton deputies is creating unsafe jails and courts, though Bowden asserts that safety concerns “are addressed immediately.”

“Safety and security is always going to be foremost,” Bowden said. “That’s the responsibility — to ensure safety and security, not just of the citizens, the courts, the judges, but of staff as well. And I don’t take it lightly.”

“We can always improve — everything can always be improved, and that’s what I’m here to do,” she said. “Sheriff Roberts left a legacy of success, and my vision is to strengthen that and build upon it.”

Curtis Cooper

Cooper, a Hampton native who’s been a Hampton police officer for 37 years, holds the rank of sergeant and is the department’s longest serving officer.

He said he’s making his campaign a fun one —with a well-attended fish fry, free bowling at Spare Times and an upcoming basketball tournament at the Hampton Boys & Girls Club.

But Cooper — who touts endorsements from Hampton Clerk of Court Linda Batchelor Smith, City Council member Steve Brown, and former Sheriff’s candidate Jim Adams, among others — says his campaign is a serious one, too.

“The main reason I’m running is because of the issues they are having at the jail,” Cooper said, referencing jail deaths. “The (deputy) shortage of the jail and the safety of the jail.”

Cooper said several past deputies have complained of poor morale.

“We need to rebuild morale within the sheriff’s office and recruit personnel — bringing back the full staff —because it’s so short over there,” Cooper said. “It puts the judges, the citizens, everybody in jeopardy.”

“I get calls from current and former deputies telling me ... how much they want change,” he said.

Cooper said he worked so much overtime as a Hampton police officer, including on extra duty shifts paid for by private organizations, that he earned more than $200,000 last year. That dwarfs the Hampton sheriff’s salary that ranges from about $119,000 to $130,000 annually.

“I’ll be taking a major pay cut to be Hampton sheriff,” Cooper said. “I will make a major sacrifice ... But (former deputies and citizens) want me to run because they know my leadership skills, and they want a change.”

Cooper says he wants to build working relationships with nonprofit organizations — from Hampton University to Sentara Care Plex to Riverside Behavioral Health — that use Newport News sheriff’s deputies rather than Hampton ones to provide extra security work.

At Sentara, for example, Newport News deputies stand watch outside of hospital rooms during emergency protective orders and temporary custody orders. “I want to keep those dollars in Hampton,” Cooper said. “I want to allow Hampton deputies the opportunity to make that revenue and keep their pay in Hampton.”

John ‘Tony’ Perkins

A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Perkins came to Hampton Roads with the Air Force, when he transferred to Langley Air Force Base in 1989.

He joined the Hampton Police Division in 1994 after a 20-year career in the military. He worked on the city’s bicycle patrol, then worked as a school resource officer in high schools and middle schools, and later worked for 12 years as a detective in the property crimes unit.

During his time as a resource officer, Perkins said, he called all the students “sir” and “ma’am” as a way of building mutual respect. “In order to get respect, you have to give it,” he said.

And after arresting people as a detective, he said, he would always ask them “where they wanted to be in five years. After they answered “with a good admirable path,” Perkins said, “my next question would be, ‘How do you expect to get there, committing these activities?’”

During his time on the police force, Perkins said he suggested a change in state law allowing for the quicker recovery of property stolen at pawn shops and precious metal dealers.

After retiring as a police officer in 2014, he worked five years for the sheriff’s office — mostly handling security at the General District Court — before stepping aside in 2019.

Perkins says there have been too many deaths — both natural and suicides — at the Hampton City Jail in recent years. He also contends that security is lax in Hampton’s courthouses, with not enough deputies working the front doors, which could allow deputies to be overpowered at the gates.

Perkins said that because of a manpower shortage, the sheriff’s office doesn’t treat people right — sometimes stripping deputies of planned vacations at the last minute to cover shifts..

“You don’t talk down to anybody, and you treat them all like adults,” Perkins said. “People have plans, and everyone should have time to spend with their family. It’s not right for the (deputies) to be treated so badly.”

Sometimes, he says, deputies serving legal paperwork are pulled to work court or jail security because of the shortages, causing significant delays in that paperwork getting out. “That’s unacceptable,” Perkins said. “The citizens deserve top notch service.”

Perkins said he will hire more deputies and treat them better, so they want to stay with the sheriff’s office rather than leaving.

“When you go to court and take out a warrant — because somebody stole your money, or did some improper work on your property, or anything else that you’re suing for — it’s our responsibility to serve the warrants.”

Peter Dujardin, 757-247-4749, pdujardin@dailypress.com

Karen Bowden

Age: 62

Occupation: Appointed Hampton Sheriff by the City Council in December after the death of longtime Sheriff B.J. Roberts. Has spent 36 with the sheriff’s office, to include 22 years as Roberts’ second-in-command.

Education: Graduate of Smithfield High School; holds a bachelor of arts in interdisciplinary studies from Norfolk State University.

Family: Husband of 25 years, Larrine, and son T.J., a Bethel High School graduate. Still attends her hometown church, First Gravel Hill Baptist Church in Smithfield.

Campaign website: www.bowdenforsheriff.com

Curtis Cooper

Age: 58

Occupation: A Hampton police officer for 37 years. The department’s longest serving current officer, holding the rank of sergeant. Worked in patrol, investigations and neighborhood watch coordinator. Currently a community coordinator between the citizens and police.

Education: Graduate of Hampton High School, 1981. Took police and management classes and leadership classes at Thomas Nelson Community College, Christopher Newport University and Hampton University.

Family: Three grown children (two sons and one daughter) and three grandchildren, with another on the way.

Campaign website: www.cooperforsheriff2021.com

John A. “Tony” Perkins

Occupation: Florida native who came to Hampton Roads with the Air Force in 1989. After 20 years in the Air Force, became a Hampton police officer in 1994, working as a school resource officer and property crimes detective before retiring in 2014. Worked five years as a deputy sheriff before retiring in 2019.

Education: Associate’s degree in airway science, Air Force Community College; Associate’s degree in liberal arts, St. Leo University; bachelor’s degree in criminology, St. Leo University.

Family: Married to Hampton native Sonya Williams-Perkins. Four daughters: Adrean Perkins, Alexis Perkins, Sashia Williams and Midori Anderson.

Campaign website: perkins4sheriff.com