The race for sheriff has heated up, with the two candidates sparring over jail management and the role of the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office in the community.
A recent debate between Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel and his challenger, State Representative Mike Christian, was hosted at the Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library in Oklahoma City by the Oklahoma County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
Whetsel has overseen many changes in Oklahoma County since taking the office in 1997, and he has been a working law enforcement officer in the area since 1967. Christian has just under eight and a half years experience as a state trooper and has been a member
of the State House of Representatives since 2008.
The debate heated up quickly as Christian attacked the incumbent’s management skills, and called for a reduction in patrol and an increased emphasis on jailing.
Whetsel ignored most of Christian’s rhetorical attacks, and stated his long-time belief that running the jail is only a part of his many responsibilities to the county.
“I’ve been in law enforcement my entire adult life,” said Whetsel. “To me the most important thing is the safety of our citizens.”
The state representative seeking election to the sheriff’s office focused his discussion on the need to make the jail the sheriff’s top priority. Christian called the 13-story jail “a tower of terror” and described the longtime incumbent as either incompetent or corrupt.
Whetsel and the OCSO have received criticism over the years regarding problems with the Oklahoma County Jail, and that reached a new height this year with overcrowding and an unusually high amount of deaths.
Nine inmates have died this year. Four of those deaths were by suicide, and another inmate attempted suicide and now has brain damage.
While the jail population is high, Whetsel pointed out that the state fire marshal allows up to 2,890 inmates and there were 2,250 at the time of the debate.
“Every week there are between 750 and 850 people booked into the Oklahoma County jail, and there also are that many that are released,” said Whetsel. “So we’re running between 1,600 and 1,700 in and out of that small booking and releasing area every single week.”
Christian, blamed the jail deaths on mismanagement, and believes those deaths will bring lawsuits that will be paid by taxpayers.
Whetsel says the jail, that opened in 1991, never had sufficient funding, and that funding has been reduced in the last five years while prisoner counts have increased.
Whetsel said jail staff plummeted from 520 to 445 during recent budget troubles, and those problems can be credited to the state legislature, where Christian has worked since 2008.
Christian seemed focused on what he believed to be completely Whetsel’s failure as he encouraged tax payers to hold the sheriff personally accountable for problems at the jail.
“He’s caused a lot of pain in this county. And we’re all suffering the consequences to his actions,” said Christian. “It’s either incompetence or corruption. Only he can tell us which one it is.”
Whetsel didn’t directly respond to the personal attacks, but stated his challenger’s lack of experience with jails should speak for itself.
“We are one of only two jails in the state, Oklahoma County and Tulsa, that have been accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and the American Correctional Association. So they can say what they want to, but we’re one of only two in the state that are accredited and meet the national standards in our operations,” explained Whetsel. “We have a task force looking into the jail, and hopefully we’ll have some solutions by next year.”
Christian stated his belief that Whetsel has not directed the needed resources to the jail, and suggested that the OCSO rethink the resources put into patrolling Oklahoma County.
“Does he really need 300-plus vehicles? There’s fraud, waste and abuse,” said Christian. “Why do we need horses, a team of horses? Who the hell does he think he is, Wyatt Earp?”
Whetsel was quick to point out that reserve deputies provide their own horses and work for free at the stockyards, State Fair Park and along with ATV reserve deputies, who also work for free, help dispatch large search parties quickly when needed in rural areas.
OCSO has over 600 employees, and 250 of those are full time deputies. There are another 150 deputies that are purely voluntary.
Christian accused Whetsel of having his deputies working traffic in cities that have their own police force as a political move to get votes, while Whetsel argued that deputies will not ignore crime as they travel around the county and their assistance is often needed and requested.
“The only people complaining about seeing law enforcement officers in law enforcement vehicles are the politicians,” contested Whetsel. “Ask the citizens what they think about seeing more law enforcement in their community.”
In small eastern Oklahoma County communities with less than half a dozen officers the sheriff’s office has become a much appreciated resource during the last 20 years.
“In the last 20 years we’ve cut the crime rate by 90 percent, and the traffic crash rate by 92 percent in the unincorporated areas of the county, and that is despite a 500 percent population increase,” said Whetsel. “One of the things I did when I took office 20 years ago was start our traffic safety unit. Something the citizens need to realize is we’re not financially driven. When we give a ticket we only get $5 of that fine, by law. So a lot of the time we just give a written warning. If we can change your behavior without costing you a couple hundred dollars than that’s no skin off of our nose.”
Problems with Partisanship
The two Oklahoma County Sherriff candidates will be on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The incumbent Whetsel, a Democrat, has managed to be elected for five straight terms.
The challenger Christian, a Republican, has served in the Oklahoma Legislature since 2008.
As of 2014, registered voters in Oklahoma County were identified as 175,027 Republican, 157,648 Democrat and 59,060 Independent.
The incumbent would like to see politics completely removed from the office.
A year after first being elected Whetsel filed a bill to make his newly won office nonpartisan.
“I’ve tried almost every year, and it doesn’t matter if the Republicans or the Democrats are in control the parties won’t change it, but I won’t give up,” Whetsel explained. “This office isn’t about politics.”
Whetsel remains committed to have the role of sheriff made nonpartisan in Oklahoma, and will continue that mission regardless of the election results.
“I happen to be a Democrat, but I don’t think I should be either. This should be a nonpartisan office. This is a law enforcement office not a law making office. When people call 9-1-1 they don’t ask for a Republican or Democrat they just want a deputy rolling up as soon as possible. I don’t ask my deputies what party they are, and I don’t think anyone should ask that of a law enforcement officer. I vote for people, based on who they are and what they believe.”