Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sheriff's Election

After 20 years of being involved in politics, I swore I was finished. No more walking the streets to hand out campaign literature, no more serving up tenderloins and apple sauce, no more forcing signs into summer-hard ground, no more attending endless strategy sessions. But now, it's time to elect a new sheriff and I'm reneging on my vow. I'm supporting Bob Land because he's a good man with tremendous experience in administration, investigation, drug eradication, all the qualities our department needs. (Confession: I consider Paul Karst a friend and great guy too and would not be terribly disappointed if he won).

I was part of the Wabash County Sheriff's Department for ten years. I watched many changes through the decade I was there. I came in with Tim Roberts and Dallas Winchester, who brought a new level of achievement. Equipment was updated - new cars, a stove on which every burner worked, modern weapons and communication equipment. Deputies were encouraged to update their training until most of them were instructors. Eventually, we hosted training ourselves, becoming a test site for Firearms and Pre-Basic Training and Jail Officer school. We also became a test site for inmates getting their GED.

Having been a detective himself, creating a detective division was one of Tim's first priorities. Early on, Barry and Mike embarked on an intensive campaign to identify and provide evidence against drug dealers which resulted in officers from all the departments in Wabash County going out to serve warrants: approximately 20 people were arrested on one marathon night.

Tim made his vision clear: making cases and catching criminals were what we were all about. Of course, the deputies also had to investigate accidents and serve civil papers and transport prisoners but taking criminals off the streets was our first responsibility.

So, we rolled along for eight years. We were generally happy with one another and the people seemed pleased with the performance of their department.

When Tim's 8 years were over, our Detective-Captain Barry Hicks, ran for Sheriff. He was by far the most qualified by virtue of knowing the department and the jail backward and forward. We all liked Barry and under normal circumstances, he'd have had the overwhelming support of his co-workers. But it wasn't normal circumstances because of his brother, Steve. When Barry asked if I'd support him, I said I couldn't, not because of Barry himself but because of Steve, whom we'd hired a few years earlier.

"I've never seen you stand up to him, Barry." I told him, "I think he's a bully with an agenda and the thought of Steve with unlimited authority is a scary thought."

Barry shrugged and said, "well, he's family and that's the way it is." That was Barry's motto but we later discovered, it wasn't Steve's.

If any voter had read the campaign literature that year, it seemed they would have had to vote for either Barry or Bob Land. Leroy Striker was the stealth candidate. His qualifications were minimal but he showed us how to win an election. He'd spent years behind the scenes winning friends and influencing people - coaching wrestling at Southwood, being active in the Friends Church, serving on groups like the Child Protection Team and the Domestic Violence Task Force. And he had another huge advantage: he announced from the git-go that Charlie Smith would be his major and everyone loved Charlie. (Sort of the opposite of Barry and Steve).

I watched with dismay as Leroy took over. He seemed to see us as a bunch of country bumpkins who had to be whipped into professional shape by his State Police expertise. Whereas, Tim had been all about action, Leroy was all about appearance. He remodeled our offices, then the entire basement to move the deputies downstairs. They loved it at the time, having their own offices and computers, but we lost a kind of camaraderie we'd had before, a camaraderie Tim and Dallas had encouraged because information is what makes law enforcement go 'round and sometimes casually passing on a nugget information is what solves a crime. Now, instead of drinking coffee and hanging out with us as they had before, the deputies were mostly out of sight. With Leroy's arrival, we went sterile. It felt more like working for an insurance agency than an active law enforcement agency.

Leroy never seemed comfortable with the deputies and I always thought it was because they knew more about the nuts and bolts of police work than he did. The time he told me that, "if any of these guys tangle with me, I'll make their lives a living hell," I knew we were in trouble.

Shortly into Leroy's first term, Barry was diagnosed with cancer. He went through treatment and struggled to pull his weight. What he couldn't carry, the other deputies carried for him. One day, Leroy called the officers together and asked if they thought he should put Barry on sick leave. They all said no except his brother, Steve. Steve told Leroy he'd be doing Barry a favor although in reality, Barry had told his family the one thing he wanted was to die an active cop.

Barry was put on disability but he got a letter from his doctor saying he was able to perform all his duties so he had to be allowed back. Only, he came back to the midnight shift because Leroy said it would be uncomfortable for Steve to have him on days because of the hard feelings Barry now had for him. Thirds were rough on Barry although the other guys helped him as much as they could. When he finally had to give it up, Steve got both his rank and his office.

I always thought Leroy let me stay as long as he did because he had to pick my brain about budgets and paying claims and ordering cars and filling out insurance applications.....but eventually, he replaced me. I honestly wasn't angry because secretaries are their bosses' closest confidantes and they need someone in whom they have absolute trust. Leroy wasn't sure he could count on me to be a loyal subordinate...and he was right. I hated most of what was going on in the department.

I hated that the Reserves, whom we built up to the 20 we were budgeted for and, who were absolutely essential manpower in a small department, were reduced to ticket writers and transporters. I don't know how many Reserve officers the department still has but at one point, they were down to 7 or 8.

I hated that our contribution to the Drug Task Force was limited to one part-time officer because Leroy didn't seem to believe there was a serious drug problem in the county. I hated that, although Leroy said he had no "quota" for tickets, if officers didn't produce enough, it was reflected on their performance evaluations.

But life goes on and now Leroy's administration is almost over. Bob Land has the qualifications and experience the department desperately needs to get a new lease on life. So that's why I'm involved in politics again. It's just one insider's view and, admittedly, I'm a disgruntled former employee, but one who still loves the department and wants the best for it.