Sitting on the sidelines watching the sheriff’s race grind along I cannot deny having a personal interest in the race. I have been a sworn police officer for 42 straight years, 25 of which have been with the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office. I have been the Undersheriff for the past six years and plan on retiring in the near future, as does Sheriff Ben Wolfinger (for the record: I have offered to stay on long enough to assist the new sheriff with their transition). My biggest concern is that the community and the sheriff’s office have the best possible law enforcement leadership.
Without a doubt, many people at KCSO are looking for a change, and in particular a new perspective. Their Deputy Sheriff’s Association has made this publicly clear, and they have publicly endorsed one of the candidates. I take no offense to their asking for change, and in many ways agree with them. Let me be clear: I think Sheriff Wolfinger and I have provided — and will continue to provide — our community with sound management practices that provide excellent law enforcement services. So why then would I agree with a need for change?
My opinion is that fresh eyes are often needed to grow any organization, and KCSO is no exception. New ideas, new leadership styles, and different visions all combine to create an atmosphere that inspire an organization to greater heights. In my discussions with our personnel on the subject of change, what I have taken away is that the desire for change isn’t an indictment of current leadership. Rather, it is a desire to approach things in different ways, again with fresh eyes. Setting my own ego aside, I understand what they are saying because I have felt the same way more than once over the course of my career. And, I believe there is always someone out there that can do things a little — or even a lot — better.
Tragically, I see people working in the background to push their candidates forward not out of concern for the community; not out of concern for the sheriff’s office; and not out of concern for pushing forward the most qualified candidate. One can only wonder why, and this is a common topic of conversation in the law enforcement community. Speculation runs the gamut and includes candidates being pushed forward as an extension of “the old guard”; candidates being supported to propel extreme political views; and candidates being supported as a means to settle old scores.
This is the most controversial sheriff’s race I have seen in my 25 years at KCSO and I have had a front row seat to see known facts misrepresented, lies told, and reputations stained. Some people write this off as just being politics. I agree that it is, indeed, politics. At its worst. My concern is that the sheriff’s office is left in good hands when Sheriff Wolfinger and I leave and that the men and women have leadership they are confident with.
The community needs to decide who their next sheriff will be, and to arrive at that decision it needs to be familiar with the issues that the new sheriff will face. Without a doubt — and I don’t think I will get a lot of argument here — the greatest issue facing Kootenai County is growth. I don’t think I’ll get much argument either when I say that with growth comes more crime. And in the case of Kootenai County, we come from a clear perspective: over the course of my 25 year career we have gone from roughly 20% of our incarcerated persons in the jail being felons in the 1990’s to a point where we now typically house a jail population of 80% felons.
The take away is this: this is not the same Kootenai County that it was 25 years ago, and logic suggests that experience in dealing with metropolitan law enforcement issues could be a critical factor in a sheriff’s candidate. When I came to work for KCSO the population of Kootenai County was about 92,000 and today it is just shy of 167,000. This, coupled with explosive growth in adjacent Spokane County, adds up to a metropolitan area that approaches 700,000 people. What this adds up to is that a desirable candidate knows the ins and outs of policing and it’s many facets, and also has a clear understanding of jail management. Both of these disciplines create huge challenges for even a seasoned sheriff and must be considered when choosing a suitable candidate.
Looking at some of the rhetoric associated with the Sheriffs race causes me to chafe at the notion that to get elected, being a “local” is a critical factor. Anymore, I am not sure how to define what a “local” really is. Is it someone who was born here? Is it someone who has lived her for 10, 20, or 30 years? Perhaps my wife qualifies as a “local” because she was born and raised in Idaho and has lived here her whole life. Go figure, but like many things associated with the Sheriffs race, the answer may be in the eyes of the beholder.
Make no mistake about it, a well-founded knowledge of community issues along with deep ties to the community are huge advantages to any candidate—and they should be. However in a community that has people moving inside its borders from virtually everywhere, to blindly dismiss people from other places seems short sighted at best and, frankly, arrogant at worst. Again, the issue here in Kootenai County is seemingly unbridled growth, and I don’t think you need to be a rocket scientist to figure it out. The question to the voter will be how to balance the candidates experience along with their commitment and ties to the community (and not just how long they have lived here).
As a final caveat on this subject, of the past three sheriffs, two are originally from North Idaho (Rocky Watson and Wolfinger). One was from California (Pierce Clegg). Of the last three undersheriffs, all three were from elsewhere: two were from California (Travis Chaney and myself) and one from Chicago (Tad Leach).
The issues facing us in Kootenai County are going to require a great deal of depth in a Sheriff. That depth will require well rounded experience in law enforcement field operations and jail management. It will require proven diplomacy and statesmanship. It will require a good pulse of what is going on in the community. And most of all it will require leadership. The issues also cannot be dealt with blindly by adhering to a certain political philosophy, because the Sheriff serves everyone, regardless of their political affiliations; extremism in any form is utterly unacceptable in a Sheriffs candidate. Finally, the man or woman who ascends to the position of sheriff should also be doing it because they want to serve the community and not themselves. I hear a lot of talk about humility, but talk is cheap.
Moving forward, I do not doubt that any of the candidates could do the job—the question is just how well? If you study each candidate (which I hope you do) you will see that some are more qualified, at least on paper, than others. One critical issue that can be ascribed to two of the candidates is that each of them has stated they will rely on their undersheriff to make up for their lack of experience in one or more law enforcement disciplines. To my knowledge, neither of these candidates has publicly stated who they will have as an undersheriff. To make a logical and informed decision on either of these candidates, the undersheriff question should be answered. To leave this question unanswered, in my opinion, creates a huge chasm in qualifying the candidate’s suitability for office.
I recall the slogan that Sheriff Wolfinger used in both of his previous campaigns: “Experience Counts.” Experience counts, and it counts a lot. So does integrity and honesty. There are candidates in this race who have been maligned to one degree or another on these topics. Each has offered explanations to their detractors, and in an election like this one, the truth, unfortunately, ends up in the eye of the beholder.
From where I sit, I find it hard to fairly judge any of the candidates on their integrity. I have seen enough truth bending, fabrication, and character assassination to confuse the most logical thinker. I am not ascribing this to any one candidate’s campaign, but I know that all of these contrivances have been used in this race with shameful affect. I realize that life is not fair, and certainly politics aren’t either. But to my knowledge, not one of the candidates has been accused of any heinous act that suggests they are sociopaths or arch criminals and I do not think it is fair to try to judge them otherwise based on negative campaign chatter.
I submit to make a viable choice for your next Sheriff that you take a hard look at all the material on each of the candidates. See not just what their experience is, but also how varied and rounded it may be. See how they are attached to our community and how they evaluate pressing issues. See what solutions they have offered to deal with pressing issues. See what their politics are, because, like I stated earlier, your sheriff serves everyone and should not be defined by extreme views. And, finally, try to cut through the political minefields that have been laid out on the character or integrity of any of the candidates and do your best to make a fair and informed decision.
In a word: do your homework, because your vote counts.
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