Patrick B. McGuigan
Editor and Publisher, The City Sentinel
Darla Shelden contributed to this report
OKLAHOMA CITY – The September 12 election for Oklahoma County Sheriff has drawn widespread attention at the grass roots level, and recurring coverage from local news organizations.
While special elections generally do not spark high turnout, a number of factors could bring higher-than-average participation for Tuesday’s election.
First, historic issues with county jail operations and practices in recent decades have drawn increasing critical scrutiny.
Second, all three candidates in the race have participated in well-attended forums or debates, making themselves frequently available to reporters and to community groups interested in jail policy. One of the candidates (leading in assessments of public opinion) will spend quite a bit of money to turn out his supporters.
Third, Tuesday’s sheriff election coincides (in Oklahoma City, at least) with a major cluster of local bond issues and related policy issues.
Fourth, support for jail reforms is strong across the political spectrum. No doubt, many other issues could be added to this brief list.
John Whetsel, a Democrat who had long tenure in the job, was reelected last November. He defeated former state Rep. Mike Christian, a Republican, in the general election. However, persistent challenges presented at the county jail, and investigations into the facility’s operations under his direction, led to Whetsel’s resignation last spring.
P.D. Taylor was named Interim sheriff after Whetsel’s departure. Hoping to fill out the remaining three years in the present term, Taylor decided to seek the position in the special election. He won the GOP nod last spring.
The interim sheriff faces Mike Hanson, the Democratic nominee, and Ed Grimes, an independent, in Tuesday’s balloting.
While both Taylor and Hanson’s are long-standing employees at the Sheriff’s office, each has, in his own way, separated themselves sharply from Whetsel’s tenure during this campaign.
Like his opponents, Grimes has lengthy experience in law enforcement, most recently as a Cleveland County undersheriff.
While the office has a wide range of responsibilities, including law enforcement in the county’s unincorporated areas, the jail has been the focus of nearly all reporting and activism in the present campaign.
The Oklahoma County facility has been the location of inmate deaths and poor health for those incarcerated, and several examples of bad behavior and disciplinary issues for some detention officers. The jail is overcrowded and plagued with the problems that face nearly all prisons and corrections facilities in all large metropolitan areas.
Debate brings out nuanced differences
Several dozen people attended a debate among the candidates on August 23.
NonDoc, an online news organization, partnered with Let’s Fix This and the Oklahoma Women’s Coalition to put on the nonpartisan debate along with seven other organizations.
Taylor pointed to reforms instituted since he became the interim sheriff. These have included more nighttime personnel watching inmates at the jail, video arraignments to speed up transfers or release decisions, and other shifts in policy. Taylor also related the challenges involved in holding individuals who have often made bad decisions for years.
Hanson said he would assure everyone at the facility had to follow procedures, hinting (without specifics), that some jail employees get a “pass” on unprofessional behavior. Under critical questioning from reporters, Hanson said he was kidding or not serious when he made comments promising to dismiss some jail personnel.
Grimes promised to treat inmates “like human beings, not animals” – a line that drew applause from many in the audience. He aimed several verbal shots at Taylor’s tenure, tying him to Whetsel-era policies. Taylor rebuffed such arguments, saying he had listened to critics and to advise, things he asserts Whetsel did not do consistently.
Despite their differences, often matters of nuance, each of the candidates agree more resources are needed for a new facility, in the long run.
Taylor said that is not in the cards any time soon, but said he hopes land near the jail (located on the west edge of the downtown area) can be used. Operations at those smaller operations could improve performance at the main jail, he hopes. Taylor described a meeting with staff from the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Prevention that has helped shape new policies at the jail.
Grimes said that, in a best case scenario, it would take several years before work could even begin a new facility.
Experienced journalists – Aaron Brilbeck of News9, James Coburn of the Edmond Sun, and Claire Donnelly of KGOU – questioned the candidates during the “Tussel at the Tower” – held at the newly restored historic Tower Theatre on N.W. 23 Street.
NonDoc’s William Savage III moderated the exchange. Event sponsors included “Let’s Fix This” and the Oklahoma Women’s Coalition, with other support from the Oklahoma Progressive Coalition, FKG Consulting, Brett and Karma Robinson, journalist Jennifer Chancellor, the county criminal defense lawyers association, ACLU of Oklahoma and businesses affiliated with the Seminole Nation.
The debate can be viewed online here.
Saturday (September 9), News9 reported new data showing a decline of several hundred inmates at the county lock-up due to Taylor’s efforts to process bonds more quickly and seek alternative placement for some inmates.
The same day, news broke that criminal charges may be levied against a rookie county detention officer involved in the death of an inmate last month and in a prior inmate death (in April) at the jail.
VOICE Accountability Session draws nearly 400 citizens
The organization known as VOICE (Voices Organized in Civic Engagement) hosted a forum on August 20 that attracted nearly 400 people to a northeast Oklahoma City church. The session included stories “from people illustrating some of the unacceptable conditions at the county jail, a briefing on the Vera Institute recommendations on criminal justice reform, and several calls to action.”
Explicitly tagged as an “accountability session” and not a debate, that discussion elicited agreement with several VOICE objectives from the three candidates.
In preparation for the forum, VOICE gathered input from many families of incarcerated individuals. In the words of one summary, “There were stories shared about how money that families provide inmates for everything from additional food to making phone calls to family often gets taken to pay fees charged while staying at the jail. The worst were medical fees for required medical treatment. The idea here is that families who are trying to help a loved one in a tough situation are being milked for money to run the jail.”
All three candidates promised to meet with VOICE members on that and other issues of jail operations.
Members of VOICE have responded enthusiastically to the looming election – and to the appearance of the trio of candidates at the recent accountability forum.
“I could feel the importance of this race based upon the tension and energy in the room, and I think that the candidates for Oklahoma County Sheriff felt it too,” said Emilee Bounds, a VOICE leader with Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ, in a comment sent to The City Sentinel.
“VOICE showed that restoring humanity to the Oklahoma County Jail is a top priority for our community. We showed the candidates that we are going to be there to hold them accountable to their word and the status quo of regular deaths, mold, and unsanitary conditions are unacceptable,” Bounds said.
Kristen King, another VOICE leader said, “When 400 people come together on a Sunday afternoon because they want a sheriff candidate to commit to fixing the very grave issues in the county jail, it shows that people care deeply about what is going on there. It’s outrageous that we operate this jail at two times its capacity, stick the mentally ill there because there’s nowhere else to put them, and watch as the death toll rises by an average of more than one death per month. We are excited about the Vera reforms, but we know there’s an even bigger issue: funding. We cannot try to fund the jail on the backs of the poor, while Oklahoma County is the only county in the state that does not have sales tax revenue helping to support its jail.”
Robin Wertz, from Exodus House, said, “I believe that we all can agree that something must be done sooner rather than later with the Oklahoma County Jail and we cannot afford to ignore the inhumanity being subjected on them any longer.”
Pastor Theodis Manning Sr., of Divine Wisdom Worship Center, commented, “We can no longer ignore what’s going on within the county jail concerning the condition, staff accountability, safety and the need for more transparency.”
Another reflection came from Sundra Flansburg, VOICE leader and a member of First Unitarian Church, who said: “I appreciated hearing from all of the candidates that they understand their role in advocating and prioritizing aspects of this work. They all see that they would have the power to make some things better at the jail.”
Representing Great Mt. Olive Baptist Church, Rev. Joshua Busby said, “The job of the Oklahoma County Sheriff is not easy, and whoever wins the election has their work cut out for them. We look forward to partnering with the new Sheriff to set a new trajectory for REAL change at the county jail.”
Election marks historic shift toward jail policy changes
Taylor, the Republican, has an overwhelming advantage in campaign spending as the election nears. He has garnered endorsements from the state’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, from The City Sentinel, and other opinion leaders.
Grimes, the independent, has spent little, but has been effective in forums and has an online presence. Hanson, the Democrat, has not drawn strong support from his own party and has little money.
While county elected officials have been reluctant to consider a new jail, The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce sponsored the detailed study advocating criminal justice reforms from the Vera Institute. Among other matters, that study documenting issues related to overcrowding and, more broadly, over-incarceration.
Prominent local leaders like Clay Bennett, owner of the Oklahoma City Thunder, have applauded and supported the Vera recommendations and other reforms. In the long run, such prominent support could steer a shift in sentiment at the top levels of county leadership.