By Darla Shelden
Inspired by a local police captain who lived down the street, John Whetsel grew up always wanting to be a police officer. Beginning his law enforcement career in 1967, he joined the Choctaw Police Department in 1973, serving as its chief for 21 years. In 1997 he was elected Oklahoma County Sheriff.
Last week a reception was held for Whetsel at the Coyle Law Firm in downtown Oklahoma City. Father and son defense attorneys, John and Billy Coyle acknowledged Sheriff Whetsel for his service and recent induction into the Oklahoma Sheriff’s Association Hall of Fame.
John Coyle said about the sheriff, “Sheriff Whetsel helps all the lawyers and all the people in the justice system. He’s been recognized with a lot of awards lately and he deserves all of them.”
“It’s not about politics, it’s about people and that’s what Sheriff Whetsel is all about. We opened the doors to our law firm for John Whetsel because we want him to remain as the Sheriff for another four years,” Billy Coyle said.
Whetsel is the first Oklahoma law enforcement officer to receive the prestigious J. Stannard Baker Award for Highway Safety. Presented this summer at the National Sheriff’s Association Conference, the award recognizes individuals who make significant contributions to highway safety.
Learning later that Major John Waldenville, a deputy shot while working off duty, had nominated him for this award, Whetsel said, “It was one of those once in a lifetime moments. Getting the award and learning that John was the one who submitted my name has a very personal meaning to me.”
Whetsel’s agency, on behalf of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was chosen to pilot the Older Driver Safety Program. This program is designed to educate older drivers how aging effects driving skills, and to inform law enforcement how aging can effect traffic situations. With baby boomers getting older, this program is critical in regard to traffic safety and is now a national program available online.
This summer, the Sheriff’s office received the International Association of Chiefs of Police Excellence in Technology Award for deploying a statewide information sharing system.
After applying for federal grant money, the agency’s computerized communication center was developed. Today, over 200 law enforcement agencies statewide are sharing information.
“People often don’t understand what we do and the mission we have. In Oklahoma County we have 150 square miles of unincorporated areas outside of any city limits or town. When those people call 911 the sheriff’s office gets the call. Over the last 15 years we’ve been able to reduce the crime rate by more than 80% and the traffic crash rate by 90% by putting deputies on the street and involving people in community programs,” said Whetsel.
Seeing a need to change the culture, the sheriff’s department developed a new motto, ‘Pride in who we are, professional in what we do.’
Within six months there was a traffic safety unit including motorcycle deputies. They implemented traffic safety initiatives including sobriety checkpoints, elderly driver safety programs, additional patrol deputies and an expanded traffic fatality squad. New vehicles and uniforms were added that helped to change morale.
Without general fund money in the budget for the last 14 years, the Sheriff’s department has acquired over $20 million in grants for one time purchases, mainly used for technology.
Recently the agency utilized inmate labor to remodel a 6,400-square-foot training center in Spencer for around $31,000 while the project would have cost over $125,000 if it had been contracted out commercially.
After the extreme heat subsides, a new gardening program will allow inmates to learn how to grow vegetables that will provide fresh produce for the jail saving taxpayer dollars.
“All of my accomplishments as sheriff of Oklahoma County must be shared with the men and women who work for our agency who have made a difference in the community they serve,” stated Whetsel.
The Sheriff John Whetsel Golf Classic will be held at The Greens Golf Course in Oklahoma City on Monday, September 12, starting with lunch at 11:30am. For more information call 405-769-8912.