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Sheriff candidates discuss crime rate, mental health

By Vicky O. Misa | Vicky.misa@news-star.com | (405) 214-3962 | Twitter: @Vicky_NewsStar
The Shawnee News-Star

Last week PAVE (Pottawatomie Advocates for Voter Education) hosted a candidate forum for 11 hopefuls running for offices relating to county and state seats, though two did not participate.

Among them were three candidates running for Pottawatomie County Sheriff: Incumbent Mike Booth, Jeff Griffith and Ben Henderson.

Questions ranged from things like budget concerns due to COVID-19; mental health and medicaid; crime rates; training; roads; and justice reform.

Candidates offered their take on several issues; here are some of the questions and responses.

QUESTION: What should the state do help law enforcement with mentally ill patients; is there anywhere to take them to a location for these folks to get help?

RESPONSES:

• Incumbent Mike Booth said he was on the Governor's task force, assigned with different attorneys, legislators, and law enforcement from around the state to work on that exact issue to see what was better for law enforcement handling mental health issues that they face today.

“It all boils down to money and resources,” he said. “As law enforcement, right now, especially smaller agencies, don't have the resources; the training that we receive just helps us deal with that individual at that moment.”

He said the longterm care, the facilities that are available are a whole different issue.

“The state needs to pick up more of that instead of putting more on law enforcement to be mental health professionals, animal control officers, domestic violence experts, etc.,” he said. “When you have a small agency, you have to deal with various types of calls and situations, but that state has to step up on the mental health part, because they are the only ones that have the money or the resources to be able to handle the bigger problem.”

Most of the time, he said it's someone not on their medication, and his office has to deal with them when they have an episode.

So having that mental health professional address those issues a little bit more on the scene will help a lot,” he said. “Maybe have law enforcement there with them, but to be able to handle that at the start, the transport, dealing with doctors,” he said. “Law enforcement should play some role, but not to the extent that we do now.”

He said he understands the state is broke, or has money issues, and it can't be put everywhere that's needed, but it's the same problem and same issue (law enforcement) has.

“We need more resources and more money to treat these individuals and not put it on the back of law enforcement,” he said. “We cannot get enough training and have enough manpower to deal with that on a regular basis.”

• Jeff Griffith agreed with his opponents.

“State funding has diminished greatly and part of mental health's funding has diminished,” he said. “Law enforcement cannot do this work; we're not psychotherapists.”

He said law enforcement deals with them in the worst of circumstances and need a way, and the funding mechanisms, to enable them to get them to the help they need.

“The bottom line of it is the state does need to put the additional resources into this,” he said. “A lot of the work we do on the side is directly or indirectly related to mental health.”

The state does need to step up and fund these systems appropriately to enable law enforcement to do its job.

• Ben Henderson said it's a big topic.

“The answer is no, there's not enough resource,” he said. “If the state's going to step in and help provide more resources, then absolutely; that would be a great idea.”

But , he said, not just provide the facility — provide the help, getting people that need to be there, there and then follow up with them, because once we get someone there, they continue to need help.

“It's not just a short-term deal,” he said. “It's not just something that we can just sit there and go, 'Okay, you're in a facility now; get better.”

It doesn't work that way, he said.

“They need some long-term options,” he said. “Not just a short, quick fix.”

It's not going to work well that way, he said.

QUESTION: We currently have one of the worst crime rates in Oklahoma. If elected sheriff, what are your plans to lower the crime rate in Pottawatomie County?

RESPONSES:

• Incumbent Mike Booth said according to OSBI stats, the county does not have that high crime rate the other candidates are referencing.

“They are promoting this to promote themselves to run for this office,” he said. “That is a software issue erroneously reporting crimes — they are correcting that; those crime rates are coming down.”

He said the sheriff's office is at 18 percent.

“Tecumseh Police Department is over 30 percent on crime,” he said. “As far as 24-hour coverage, we do have it; we always have.”

He said he's had a deputy on the street for 20 hours and other agencies go out and work as deputies to help the sheriff's office answer calls.

• Jeff Griffith said the answer is pretty straight forward.

“Law Enforcement 101 — we create working teams, they are called different things in different areas — task force, impact teams or whatever,” he said. “We work with our partners to develop this response team based upon the data — so where the crime is, the time of day — we put people at high-profile times and places to reduce that crime.”

The department has to have 24-hour coverage, he said.

“There are things we can probably do, there's no doubt, and restructure shifts and coverage from other areas of the sheriff's office to get more field deputies out there,” he said. “The bottom line — all that presupposes that we have a good working relationship with the other local law enforcement agencies — right now that is not happening.”

He said the sheriff's office needs to reach out and work for the betterment of the community with teamwork.

• Ben Henderson said restructuring the sheriff's office so there is 24-hour presence.

“As it is we do not have a 24-hour presence and have not for some time,” he said. “So, restructuring the schedule, getting deputies out on the streets so they are able to respond appropriately, create a deterrent by being visible in the first place.”

Along with other things, he said working with other agencies is on the list, but as far as the sheriff's office is concerned, the department needs to be visible all the time.

Other races

For District 2 County Commissioner, Incumbent Randy Thomas and Jason Evans seek the seat.

Competing for the state Senate District 17 position are Incumbent Ron Sharp, Brandon Baumgarten and Shane Jett.

Vying to secure the state Senate District 28 seat are Zack Taylor, Mike Haines and Christian Ford.

The election is June 30.

Watch future editions of The Shawnee News-Star or visit news-star.com for upcoming stories reporting candidate responses to some of the top issues discussed at the forum.