The “Tussle at the Tower” Oklahoma County Sheriff debate ended up being more of a slight disagreement, but a handful of issues managed to separate the trio of candidates Wednesday night.
Hosted by NonDoc in partnership with Let’s Fix This and the Oklahoma Women’s Coalition, the Tower Theatre debate featured acting-Sheriff P.D. Taylor, Oklahoma County Deputy Mike Hanson and former Canadian County Undersheriff Ed Grimes, who previously served in the Oklahoma City Police Department.
The election is being held Sept.12 following the March 1 resignation of former Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel. Whetsel’s decision to step down followed the release of a state auditor’s report that had been requested by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater. The audit questioned a variety of expenditures by the sheriff’s office.
Despite the damning report, Whetsel won re-election in November, defeating Republican challenger Mike Christian by fewer than 10,000 votes.
Christian ran again during this special election but was defeated by Taylor in the primary.
‘Treat people like they’re human beings’
With 10 inmates having died so far this year in the Oklahoma County Jail, candidates were asked about a spike in jail deaths that has drawn community attention. Taylor, who was named acting-sheriff March 2 and who worked as undersheriff for 14 of his 20 years in the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s office, said he has reached out to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to work on better identifying inmates’ mental health problems. However, Taylor said lowering death totals will not be easy when arrestees make dangerous decisions like swallowing sacks of drugs.
“I don’t know how you’re going to recognize a person with mental health issues when you’re booking them in,” said Taylor, the Republican candidate.
Hanson and Grimes, however, countered that more could be done during the booking process, though Grimes noted that some gang members are simply focused on attacking competing gang members. Hanson said those identified as having a mental health issue during booking can be moved to a separate site from the general population. Taylor said at-risk inmates were more likely to be identified during health screenings.
“There’s ways of dividing them and ways of keeping them separate,” said Hanson, the Democratic candidate.
Hanson added that many of the jail’s problems could be addressed with staffing increases and policies requiring employees to be more attentive. He said the jail has had issues with the video equipment not working properly.
“Video is a great thing, but it’s not a cure-all,” Hanson said.
Grimes, who is running as an independent, said he had a problem with how people were being treated in the county jail and said that would not be a problem under his leadership.
“Treat people like they’re human beings. They’re not animals,” Grimes said. “It’s not our job to judge them.”
Changing culture: ‘You can’t do that overnight’
At a VOICE OKC forum held at a church Sunday, candidates had been asked about reports of feminine products being inadequately available at the Oklahoma County Jail. Taylor said Wednesday night that he had examined the allegation of that problem Monday morning as promised.
“It is not an issue,” Taylor said.
Grimes, however, said this was not the first time he was told of problems at the Oklahoma County Jail. While transporting inmates to Canadian County, Grimes said it was common for him find them smelling “nasty,” and he spoke about one inmate who had been wearing the same clothes — including underwear — for two weeks without a shower.
In responding to questions, Hanson criticized the culture that exists among detention officers at the jail. But Taylor said he had already taken steps to provide small pay raises for some officers, had added some employees, was holding people accountable and was finding savings, such as $700 per car by changing some graphics.
“There’s a total culture mindset that is being changed, and you can’t do that overnight,” Taylor said.
Grimes said he hadn’t noticed any changes during his interactions, though Taylor pointed out some critics of the jail have not gone above its first floor recently. Hanson said there had been some shifts in how officers were expected to act. However, he said it was still a problem that some employees are allowed to get away with things while others are expected to conform with policy.
“The good ol’ boy system has gotta go,” Hanson said.
‘I inherited a huge problem’
The October report from the office of Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones said the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Department could not account for about 3,000 items, at a cost of $3.3 million. Taylor said he was well on his way to tackling that issue — and others — left to him by Whetsel.
“I inherited a huge problem, and it is being corrected,” Taylor said, adding that some of the items — including a 1955 meat slicer — had just been thrown away but still registered as “unaccounted for.”
Grimes said there were checks in place to keep that type of thing from happening at the Canadian County Sheriff’s office. Hanson said he had never had any problems with missing items during his time in the office, but he said the audit may have been partially accurate.
“There were some issues with the way the audit was done, but I’m sure there were some things that were missing,” Hanson said.
‘We’ve got to throw money at this building’
All three candidates seemed to be in unison concerning a need for more funding from the Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners. Having opened in 1991, the county jail has endured problems with escapes, air conditioning, plumbing, food preparation and more. Each candidate said a new jail would ultimately be needed, but they said more money in the meantime must be used to provide more officers and fix existing problems. Taylor discussed the need for better programs at the current jail.
Grimes said it would be important to make improvements to the Oklahoma County Jail. Taylor said he was already working with city and county officials on finding alternatives to housing mental health inmates and making improvements to the kitchen and receiving area, among other needs. Hanson said he supported a new jail but said it was important that more money be made available to fix the existing problems.
“We’ve got to throw money at this building,” Hanson said.
The candidates all said all people should be treated the same when asked about their position on the Black Lives Matter movement. Grimes and Taylor each emphasized that “all lives matter,” which drew jeers from the audience. Hanson encouraged an open dialogue with black activists, while Grimes referenced “black” as a color in a box of Crayons.
‘It’s going to cost lives, or it’s going to cost money’
Taylor said he was encouraged by the support his office was getting from groups like the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, and he said he was hopeful criminal justice legal changes combined with policy enforcement would help alleviate some of the problems Oklahoma County faces.
“It’s the times we’re living in,” Taylor said. “If you haven’t watched the news lately, there’s homicides every night.”
Hanson said there were many improvements that needed to be made, including mental health training for officers. But he said the opportunity for improvements would all center around whether the sheriff’s department would get the funding it needed.
“It’s going to cost lives, or it’s going to cost money,” Hanson said.
Grimes said there needed to be something done to address the Oklahoma County Jail’s high number of deaths — 25 in the past 20 months. He said he intended to work more closely with various agencies to ensure inmates were being treated better and weren’t facing some of the issues they continuously seemed to be facing.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t need to be in that jail, but they get stuck there,” Grimes said.