To Serve and To Protect... PART 1: Lyle Norton - The New Sheriff in Town
The first in a series of stories focusing on the law enforcement departments of Hot Springs and Fall River County
By Charity Maness
HOT SPRINGS – Last month on Jan. 3, Deputy Lyle Norton was sworn in as Sheriff Lyle Norton at the Fall River County Courthouse.
“I care about this community,” said Norton about his decision to run for the office of Sheriff, “and I want to serve the people.”
Norton began his law enforcement career in 1993 when then dispatcher Roger Molitor saw something promising in the young mechanic and convinced him to apply as a jailer for the Fall River County Sheriff Office (FRCSO).
“I had grown up around law enforcement officers my whole life,” said Norton of his upbringing in the small South Dakota town of McIntosh, “we grew up knowing the cops and the Sheriff personally and I had always had positive interactions with law enforcement, creating a great respect for the position.”
So when working as a mechanic at his Uncle’s shop in Hot Springs – Norton Sinclair – he naturally developed a relationship with customer and FRCSO dispatcher Roger Molitor. It wasn’t long before Molitor knew what an asset the young Norton would be to the SO and asked him to apply.
“In 1993 Roger talked me into coming down and applying as a jailer,” said Norton with a smile, “and it kind of took off from there.”
Norton began his law enforcement service under Sheriff Leo Bray as a jailer while concurrently volunteering as a police reserve with the Hot Springs Police Department, soon promoting to Deputy with the FRCSO. Yet, with a growing family, life as a law enforcement officer at that time was not conducive to family life so Norton returned to life as a mechanic.
Yet by 2014, that blood that ran blue through his veins beckoned him back into service to his community as a Deputy for FRCSO once again.
“I took a break for family,” he said, “but I always loved the job.” He said of his return to law enforcement. “Once you’ve done it, it certainly gets in your blood.”
Fast forward to 2023, and Norton now holds the coveted title of Sheriff, a position and title he is humbled to hold.
“It’s the natural progression in a small town small department, if you’re not moving up you are staying in one spot,” he said of his decision to run for the office, adding, “I wanted my chance at making decisions and helping the county.”
While he has some ideas and improvements he would like to implement, he also admits that though he previously held the FRCSO second in command position under the guidance of Sheriff Robert Evans, sitting in the Sheriff seat is a whole new ball game.
“Having been in the chair for only a little over a month I have not had a chance to make big changes and don’t plan on making big changes,” he said. Taking to heart advice he received from other Sheriffs to take baby steps. “And I think that’s good advice. You don’t know what you don’t know and until you are in this job you don’t know what this job is. There are a lot of nuances in this office and a lot of responsibilities the public probably doesn’t know we have.”
However, being new to the position has not stopped his desire to protect the public as best he can.
“We are currently refining our hiring process for better retention,” he said. Additionally the county has approved an additional position as well as an increase in wages which will help attract qualified applicants.
“Studies show money is not the deciding factor for applicants but it might get someone in the door,” he said, “once they are here the culture of the department should be able to keep you here with a family feel, it’s a job but we want you to enjoy it as much as you can enjoy being a cop. It has it positives and it has its negatives, but every job does.”
Norton’s focus for the department is to create a family atmosphere.
“This is a family,” he said, “from dispatcher, to jailer, to Deputy, in this department we are all family.”
Creating a family while building up the troops can be a daunting task, yet Norton feels all in his department are up for the challenge with many taking on tasks above and beyond their duty.
“As the Sheriff I feel part of my responsibility is to surround myself with people who will help me do my job well,” he said, further stating that each position within the department is an important factor in the department’s success.
Norton recently approached the County Commissioners with a request to deputize Hot Springs police officers in the event they are needed with backup outside of city limits. This was approved.
“This is strictly a back up in an emergency situation,” stressed Norton, “yet, I have had a lot of positive feedback from the city. At the end of the day we help the city every day, we back them up, we will never leave a law enforcement brother or sister hung out to dry and we will help them as much as we can whether we had the agreement or not. However, cross deputizing takes away any question of jurisdiction when or if they come to our aide in an emergency situation.”
Rural communities are not immune to crime. Crime can take on many forms and while often the county is considered a relatively sleep county for crime, there does exist the seedy underbelly of crime and drugs.
“The drug culture is a problem,” said Norton. “It is a problem everywhere and we are no exception to that.”
However, he believes that in the recent years the relationship between the state prosecutors and law enforcement have helped to create a clear deterrent to committing a crime. “If there is no threat of penalty, there is no deterrent.”
While meth and marijuana remain the main drug issues in the county, the insidious nature of the drug culture is seeping into deadly depths with the influx of fentanyl which can be used to lace other drugs.
“I can’t say it’s not here, but it’s here,” said Norton of the deadly new drug.
Norton is actively working toward better drug interdiction with “more Deputies better trained for getting it off the street.”
Additionally, he is approaching the potential fallout of the fentanyl issue proactively.
“Each Deputy as well as each Police Officer carries with them at all times a dose of Narcan.”
Narcan nasal spray is a prescription medication used for the treatment of a known or suspected Opioid overdose to be used while awaiting emergency medical care.
DUI’s are also a relatively common occurrence.
Yet Norton advises that DUI isn’t just for alcohol. “DUI for drugs is becoming more prevalent.”
While juggling the various duties of the office of Sheriff, Norton keeps clear focus on family; family within the county and within his home.
“Our whole family, we all care about his community, we are all serving this community in some capacity,” he said with pride. “My wife of almost 37 years is a nurse at the VA, our oldest son teaches at the high school, our youngest son is the Chief of Police here in Hot Springs, our daughter-in-law is a Dentist here in town and our other daughter-in-law works in the lab at the hospital. We are all giving back to the community in some way, shape, or form.”
With his years as a father and in law enforcement, Norton has a word of advice for youth today. “We all have that little voice inside us that tells us maybe we shouldn’t be doing something, if you hear that voice listen to it, because it’s probably right.”
He also asked for the community as a whole to be vigilant.
“We need the public to help us,” he said, “We can’t be everywhere all the time.”
Often crimes are reported days after the occurrence, leaving a cold trail and few leads for law enforcement.
Norton suggested that people let their neighbors know when they are going out of town, possibly put up ring doorbells or security cameras. “It may make the difference between solving a case and having no direction.”
Norton may be new to the position of Sheriff, but he is truly committed.
“My goal is to stay in this job until I retire; the good lord willing and with the people’s approval.”