Thursday, April 20, 2006

Why The Deputies Left

At his announcement that he intended to run for Sheriff, Mike told us that he meant to mount a positive, honorable campaign and he has lived up to that campaign promise. I believe that attitude has won him much support. Many people have told me that they appreciated the fact that Mike has never gotten into attack mode, even when he might have been justified in doing so, as when he was suspended by Sheriff Striker, in what appeared to be retaliation for his decision to become a candidate.

Although being of a somewhat more militant mind-set myself, I have respected Mike's decision to forego negativity regarding the Sheriff's race.....until now.

At a Candidate's Forum this week, sponsored by Farm Bureau, Sheriff Striker made the astounding assertion that he lost four seasoned, experienced deputies because when he came into office, he "made them work" and "some of them didn't like that and so they quit". This is so far from being the truth that there is simply no way I can let it pass without rebuttal. So, sorry, Mike, but this blog is my baby and I can say what I want here, so I'm taking off on my own on this one.

I worked at the Sheriff's Department for nearly ten years - eight as Tim Roberts' secretary and almost two as Leroy Striker's secretary and I am here to tell you that if ever there was a problem the Sheriff's Department didn't have, it was employees - be they deputies, dispatchers, jail officers, clerical staff or cooks - who didn't give their full level of commitment to the department. I remember being called in at 2:00 a.m. to write a press release on a fatal accident so it would be there for the newspapers and radio stations to give to the public first thing in the morning. And when I got to the department, 2nd shift deputies who should have gotten off at midnight would still be there, visiting hospitals, talking to families and completing reports. I can remember putting out pages to off-duty officers requesting help in serving a search warrant and having deputies from all shifts show up to assist. I can remember when extra surveillance was needed to catch the burglars doing a series of break-ins in the county and having officers who 'd just finished a shift on days, come back in to do patrol during the late night hours. I can remember riding with officers serving warrants on their own time to make arrests on drug cases made by the detectives. I can remember that jail officers came in from off-duty to help process through all the arrests made that night. I can remember dispatchers coming in voluntarily during severe storms, knowing that the dispatcher on duty would have her hands full with all the related storm calls coming in.

So Sheriff Striker's assertion that deputies quit because they didn't want to work is absolutely preposterous! He was right about one thing - overtime is rarely ever paid to deputies. Mostly they get paid in comp time, time off later for time worked now - except that they almost never got all their comp time either simply because there isn't enough manpower to let them take all the comp time they racked up. Usually, they finished the year by writing off many comp time hours.

And you know what? I never heard anyone bitch about it. They did what they did because they loved their jobs and the department, not because they saw extra dollars on their paycheck.

I know three of the deputies who resigned from the department - Bryan Cox, Jon Pace and Jason Truman. I was close to them then and I'm close to them now. I don't know what reasons Jeff Wells gave for coming to the Wabash County Sheriff's Department from the Marion City Police, staying for six weeks and then opting to bail back to his old job at Marion, because that happened after I left. Perhaps the Sheriff didn't warn him before he was hired that he would have to work!

I do know why the others left and it is for precisely the opposite reason Sheriff Striker gave. The Department, under his leadership, had become the kind of place where people felt discouraged from going the extra mile. Rather than being an agency where everyone pitched in, it turned into a kind of factory-ish, punch-a-time clock organization. For instance, I know that the deputies wanted to do extra surveillance to try to apprehend criminals who were stealing anhydrous ammonia for making meth but their request was denied.

I believe this environment stemmed from Sheriff's Striker's background coming from the Indiana State Police. The State Police are effective in their mission but their attitudes and policies don't translate to a small Sheriff's Department. The Sheriff's Department is more like a family than a rigid, hierarchal organization, such as the State Police.

When I first came to the Department, the first thing Dallas did was to drag the huge, old industrial-sized coffee pot from back in the squad room into the main office. He told the guys that he wanted them to feel free to pop in and have a cup of coffee and shoot the breeze when they weren't busy. He and Tim believed that communication and trust were the keys to making a small department (even a large department for that matter) function effectively. If third shift had been looking for a vehicle suspected in a break-in, day shift needed to know that so they could continue to watch. If day shift was unable to get a warrant served, they needed to pass it on to 2nd shift so they could try to find the suspect at home and arrest him or her. If a deputy had taken a call about arguments in a home, the next shifts needed to be aware that a potentially violent situation existed and could flare up. Back then, dispatchers and jail officers were encouraged to ride with deputies so they knew what the officers faced on the other end of the radio. We had a Department Christmas party in the winter and a picnic in the summer. All this interaction was meant to form a tight, trusted unit of friends and colleagues so when the stuff hit the fan, everyone knew they could count on everyone else to have their back, a critical attitude in a profession where danger often lurks.

By contrast, Sheriff Striker came to the Department with different ideas. The deputies were moved downstairs and discouraged from spending any amount of time in the general office. To give him credit, he made our office much more attractive but at the same time, it seemed less friendly. I truly believe Leroy thought we were a department of country bumpkins who needed his expertise as a State Trooper to whip us into professional shape. That was somewhat laughable, really, because he had been a road troop his entire career whereas our deputies were cross-trained in almost every area of law enforcement. As Sheriff, Tim had put a premium on education so that the department's officers had logged hundreds of hours of training in everything from Interviewing Techiques to Critical Incident Management to Hostage Negotiation to Internet Crimes to Identify Theft to Field Sobriety Testing. Not only were our guys trained but they were so well trained, they were requested to train other departments, as well as at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy.

So the reality was that, under Striker, the deputies who resigned felt pushed toward the door by a sheriff who neither utilized nor appreciated their abilities. They felt the comaraderie and effectiveness of the department had been lost. Sheriff Striker once told me that he knew how to make the deputies' lives hell and if they bucked him on anything, that's exactly what he would do. I believe that's what he did do.

These were officers who, among them, had almost thirty years of experience. What that meant to you, the public, was that if you crashed your car on a small, almost-unknown, road in Wabash County, they knew exactly where to go and could reach you in a matter of minutes. It meant that they were familiar with the repeat offenders in Wabash County and their usual methods of operation and the friends they hung with - which meant crimes were often solved quickly. It meant the taxpayers of Wabash County had invested a great deal of money in their training, now lost. The new deputies who replaced the ones who left are good people and are doing a fine job....but when a department of 15 (including the Sheriff, Chief Deputy and Detectives) loses three of its senior deputies, it creates a real gap for a considerable period of time. It shouldn't have happened and I flat promise you that it didn't happen because of deputies who didn't want to work.

In the eight years of the Roberts administration, no deputies left the department voluntarily. Back then, we hired officers away from other agencies because the Sheriff's Department was considered a desirable place to come because of its progressive and congenial working environment. My fondest hope is to see the Wabash County Sheriff's Department become that kind of place again.