Darla Shelden, The City Sentinel
OKLAHOMA CITY – During a recent debate, incumbent Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel, a Democrat who has held the job since since 1997, absorbed a variety of rhetorical shots from state Rep. Mike Christian, a south Oklahoma City Republican who wants to win the job on November 8.
Christian went on the attack early and often in the encounter, which attorney Billy Coyle moderated. The challenger sought to lay historic problems at the county jail around Whetsel’s neck. Whetsel defended his record, while making it clear in the course of the joust that the jail is but one aspect of the challenging job.
Whetsel says there has never been enough state resources to run the jail properly: “Over the last five years because of the lack of [state legislative] funding” for corrections and jails, the local lock-up has lost millions of dollars in resources.
Christian, a member of the state House since 2008, spoke of the legislature in the third person, saying, “Don’t blame the Oklahoma Legislature – they’ve got problems.” He said Whetsel was “deflecting again.”
The Whetsel-Christian close encounter of the political kind took place at the monthly meeting of the Oklahoma County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (OCCDLA), of which Coyle is president. Around 100 attendees – both attorneys and other city residents – listened to the debate, held at the Ronald J. Norick Library, and ate free pizza, sponsored by attorneys Anita Sanders and Kirby Evans.
Christian said the jail “is a mess. It is a nightmare.” And, he said Whetsel is “100 percent responsible. He doesn’t care. He needs to retire and go home.”
Whetsel remained calm throughout, saying at one point, “I’ve been in law enforcement my entire adult life. To me the most important thing is the safety of our citizens.” And, speaking of public safety, Whetsel reported the county patrol division has fallen from 53 to 33 – and jail staff plummeted from 520 to 445 — during the recent troubles.
Whetsel said that since he first took office, “we have reduced traffic crashes by over 90 percent” in the 150 square miles his deputies patrol. And, crime rates have fallen significantly.
Even while pointing to issues raised in a recent federal audit of the county jail, Christian said the federal government “needs to get the hell out of Oklahoma County. … Keep the RedCoats from coming in.” He designated Whetsel a new “King George.”
Whetsel said a holistic approach is needed for any new facility, pointing out the current jail of necessity holds many more prisoners than it was built to accommodate. While Christian spoke in broad rhetoric, Whetsel noted that four studies have found the jail facility inadequate – and “each one of those studies” concluded a new jail is needed because it is not “cost effective to continue” with the current facility.
Whetsel observed the most recent jail-related study is headed by Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett’s Criminal Justice Task Force.” Like Bennett, Whetsel believes “we should start looking at people – whether they have addiction problems or mental health problems.
We have 350 mental health patients in our jail today because the state has closed down mental health beds.”
Another way to ease jail crowding is to maintain community patrols, Whetsel said. But Christian said the incumbent’s deputies write too many tickets in areas already patrolled by City police or Highway Patrol troopers.
Whetsel countered, “Our deputies are on patrol, coming from or going to one of these unincorporated areas, and if they see someone run a stop sign or they see a drunk driver, they’ll make that traffic stop. They’re not going to ignore crimes being committed in front of them.”
Rep. Christian said the sheriff wants deputies to stop people in Oklahoma City for political reasons, “to get votes.”
Whetsel asserted, “The only people complaining about seeing law enforcement officers in law enforcement vehicles are the politicians. Ask the citizens what they think about seeing more law enforcement in their community.”
In rare agreement, each candidate said he supported civil asset forfeiture as a way to fight drug dealers.
Whetsel thanked the citizens of Oklahoma County and staff at the Sheriff’s office, saying, “The office I hold is about saving lives.” And, the Sheriff’s office is the only elected law enforcement position in Oklahoma County.
“Three areas — the young people in the gangs, gang violence itself, and the aging population – are the biggest challenges we face in this county,” Whetsel said.
“I thought it was interesting … that my opponent could do nothing but attack,” Whetsel said in his closing statement. “He even attacked reserve deputies who own horses — their own horses. They volunteer their time. They volunteer their horses to serve the citizens of Oklahoma County. They work the State Fair, they work the Stockyards. He just attacked men and women who went through a training program and serve our citizens for free.”