Facing Challenges, Rising Up

Sheriff Will Akin left a nightmare to live a dream — in Missouri.

Clay County Sheriff Will Akin is an overcomer. His dad left when he was 3. He, his little brother, and mom were homeless by the time he was 8. He was working when he was 12, and at 16, he dropped out of high school, worked three jobs to take care of his mom and brother – and started hanging with the wrong crowd. After a guy in that crowd shot someone, he knew he had to get out, so he earned his GED and in October 1994, joined the Army. He became a helicopter pilot but at 26, he was diagnosed with adult-onset asthma, grounded, and told he had to leave the military.

“That was devastating but I had a family to support so I started looking for a job. I had never considered law enforcement because in the neighborhoods where I grew up, we never had positive interactions with cops. But law enforcement presented an opportunity and I figured I was already used to structure so I’d give it a shot,” he said.

He got on with the Phoenix Police Department in 2002, went through the academy in April 2003 and worked there five years before taking a job with the South Bend, Indiana PD. One year later, he went to Afghanistan, first teaching members of the Afghan National Police, then working with the Family Response Unit investigating crimes against women and children. That’s where he met and became friends with former Clay County Sheriff Paul Vescovo.

“After Paul finished his contract, he returned to the states, ran for sheriff in Clay County and asked me to come to work with him if he won. My response was ‘Missouri? Are you out of your mind?’”

But Sheriff Vescovo was persistent so in the summer of 2012, while home on leave, he and his wife Jennifer drove from Columbus, Ohio to Liberty, Missouri to check things out — and they liked what they saw.

“I had to go back to Afghanistan but near the end of my third contract, I talked with my wife and said ‘Let’s rethink this. Why not move to Liberty, Missouri and work for the Clay County Sheriff’s Office?’

We decided there was no good reason not to. I had moved 38 times in 45 years, living in 10 states and three countries and the move to Clay County was the best move — personally and professionally — I’ve ever made. This is home.”

When he took the job, he told Sheriff Vescovo he would stay as long as he was sheriff, then he was moving on. He had always tailored his career to becoming a police chief.

“Then one day, Paul came to me, said he was going to retire at the end of his term and asked me to rethink what I had said about moving on. By that time, I had been here six years and had grown to love the Clay County Sheriff’s Office and Clay County. After discussing it with my wife, we decided this was the right course of action. I had a lot of support from the community, the campaign went really well, and the rest is history,” he laughed, adding that he recently learned that, at 45, he is the youngest sheriff to ever serve in Clay County.

Before being elected he was captain over the Emergency Preparedness Division and director of Emergency Management for Clay County and felt he had a good grasp of the operations of the sheriff’s office, “But on Day 1 I was overwhelmed by how much I didn’t know! Thankfully I’ve got a great team of commanders.”

His biggest challenge since taking office has been managing 230 personalities with 230 different opinions. And Sheriff Akin has given them plenty to think about!

He restructured the office and split the Field Operations Division into Patrol, which includes road deputies, a dedicated K-9, and traffic unit; and Investigations, which includes all task force deputies. He established a Professional Standards Division to pursue accreditation through CALEA and handle training, policies and procedures, background investigations, and internal affairs. In addition, the county absorbed park rangers who are now lake deputies.

He also made changes in the jail. Staff went to 12-hour shifts, which allows detention officers and deputies on the housing floor and in booking to get every other weekend off, and he worked with commissioners to implement a two-phase salary restructure to increase salaries — some as much as 17 percent. He’s working with Tri-County Mental Health to hire a social worker who will make sure school resource deputies, the civil unit and deputies know about the resources available to them, and with non-profit groups who will help inmates overcome barriers, obtain jobs and change their lifestyle after release from jail. To top it off, they’re “rebranding” their look with new uniforms.

When Sheriff Akin isn’t working, he enjoys CrossFit, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and mountain biking.

“I’m very active, but I’m also actively involved in doing everything I can to make our community better. It wasn’t until I got into law enforcement that I realized my experiences growing up would help me relate and connect with the spectrum of people in the community,” he said. “It’s what drives me today. I earned my associates degree while I was in the military, my bachelor’s degree while I was in Afghanistan, went straight into the master’s program and just graduated last year with my doctorate. Now I teach at a university here. I feel like I have made it. I share stories and tell people, ‘If I can do it, I know you can do it too.’”

By Nancy Zoellner


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