To run for Oklahoma County Sheriff, state Rep. Mike Christian (R-OKC) will forfeit a chance to run for re-election to his south-Oklahoma City legislative district. It’s a political risk he said he must take for the good of the county.
“I think it’s time for some change,” Christian said in an interview. “It’s time for new leadership.”
Christian announced his intention to run last month. As a retired and decorated state trooper, Christian brings law enforcement experience to the table in a challenge against five-term incumbent Sheriff John Whetsel.
Jail improvements a priority
Whetsel has found himself in hot water recently over his management of the Oklahoma County Jail, and his office did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with NonDoc.
Christian is making the jail’s management and oversight the central pillar of his bid.
“It just came to a point where I thought something has to be done about this,” Christian said. “I decided that it was time for somebody to do something. I thought it was time for me to step up and do something different. Somebody needs to fix that albatross in the west end of Oklahoma City.”
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Christian said he’s heard stories about poor conditions in the jail over the years, but what inspired him to run was the recent beating of Christian Costello at the hands of fellow inmates while in custody at the jail. Costello has been charged with the murder of his father, Mark Costello, who was Oklahoma’s labor commissioner at the time.
“We turn around and expect our government to keep our loved ones safe. To have Cathy Costello’s son to be beat up like that because of faulty doors or lack of oversight within the jail was beyond the pale. That family’s been through enough,” he said.
Whetsel’s financial operation of the jail is currently being audited by the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspectors Office.
“We really don’t know what the problem is until we get the findings of (Auditor Jones). Until we get some oversight and transparency in there, we may not know. I don’t think the current administration is going to get us to a point where we’re going to see that,” said Christian.
In addition, high bonds are crowding the jail with those charged with minor crimes. The overcrowding is a threat to the safety of both jailers and prisoners.
“The Oklahoma County Sheriff’s office is in desperate need of new leadership,” said Christian. “The overcrowding and conditions of the jail are deplorable, and worse yet, there is no solution from the Sheriff. The main job of the Sheriff is to manage the jail, but it is obvious that the situation is out of control.”
Budgeting and public safety also a focus
Improper use of funds at the prison and expenses in the sheriff’s office are other issues that Christian is eyeing closely.
“John (Whetsel) ran on the jail against J.D. Sharp in 1996. He named fixing the jail a priority,” said Christian.
He also wants to focus on public safety.
“Public safety in general needs to be a focus. When you have 4 percent (of the county) unincorporated, I think you can put your priorities elsewhere and not have a fleet of tanks and cars and motorcycles,” he said.
The department’s budget, he noted, has increased at a rate of 315 percent since incumbent Sheriff Whetsel took office in 1997. The rate of inflation, said Christian, has been about 40 percent. When Whetsel took office, the annual budget was $11 million. Today, it sits at nearly $50 million.
As chair of the House’s Public Safety Committee, Christian recently leveled charges of embezzlement against the Department of Public Safety. He claims a paid employee of the state has been lobbying for private agencies at the Capitol.
Christian has also been spearheading efforts to consolidate the state’s law enforcement agencies in order to cut the law enforcement budget and improve efficiency.
Whetsel seeking sixth term
Whetsel recently came under fire from Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater. The DA alleges several counts of impropriety in the sheriff’s office, among them charges that Whetsel placed campaign contributors in Special or Reserve Deputy positions. If the audit reveals improper behavior in the sheriff’s office, it could result in criminal charges.
A recent article in the Oklahoman quoted Whetsel as saying, “As the population in the unincorporated area increased by almost 500 percent over the last 20 years, the crime rate is down 90 percent, and the traffic crash rate is down 92 percent.”
Whetsel brings experience and name recognition to the campaign. In the last election, he outraised his opponent, Darrell Sorrels, by almost 14 to 1, despite being a Democrat in a largely Republican landscape. He won the election with 65 percent of the vote.
“It will be a tough battle, but when you get in this business, you learn that politics is rough,” Christian said. “It’s just a rough business.”