Tightening bonds with community agencies and groups, plus working with the county to keep the sheriff’s office in business, are top priorities for sheriff candidate Scott Stephenson.
Stephenson, who serves as a Midland County Sheriff’s Office road patrol sergeant after leaving his position as jail manager due to a federal law regulating federal money and campaigns, said working together is the way to solve many problems the county is facing, from drugs to budget woes.
He said the designer drugs called bath salts and synthetic marijuana, along with daytime break-ins, are the county’s biggest crime issues. He said the use of bath salts was so pervasive last year that the jail averaged one or two people a week detoxing from the substance. Use of the drug makes people paranoid, aggressive and violent, and he is hopeful the state Legislature’s recent ban of bath salts will help with the problem.
That still leaves opiates, like heroin. “We have more people in jail for drugs than alcohol,” Stephenson said, adding drugs factor into crime, with people stealing items to sell for money to buy drugs.
With resources at the sheriff’s office and the Bay Area Narcotics Enforcement Team stretched thin, he believes the best way to confront the issue is education.
“It’s a combination of education and a strong presence of law enforcement,” he said, adding he’d like to expand the D.A.R.E. program into junior high and high school, and build tighter relationships with groups like the Midland Area Partnership for Drug Free Youth and The Legacy Center for Community Success.
He also advocates for working with other county and township officials.
“I’ve always been a big believer in working with the county team,” he said, adding the sheriff, county administrator/controller and county commissioners are responsible for making sure taxpayer money goes where it needs to be.
He said there are other revenue sources, citing money brought in by contracts to house inmates at the Midland County Jail, to help offset cuts to the sheriff’s office. He said the jail made $1.4 million last year, and next year’s goal is $2 million.
A share of those dollars spent to restore road patrol staffing levels — which 18 years ago were at six deputies per shift and now are at three deputies per shift — would result in improved law enforcement.
“We just don’t have the time to be proactive like we used to,” he said, adding there’s only time to answer calls. Some incidents, such as fatal accidents, require two deputies. That leaves a single officer to respond to calls, including domestics, which also should have two deputies respond, he said. That leaves the remaining deputy to rely on backup from the Michigan State Police, or Midland Police. “You can’t rely on other offices to do that for you.”
Another problem at the sheriff’s office is the dwindling detective bureau. Two years ago, the bureau dropped to a single detective. In 1983 and before, there were three detectives and a detective lieutenant, Stephenson said.
“There are crimes deputies are investigating, but we’re not specifically trained to do the things they are,” he said of detectives.
Jail staffing also is not at recommended levels. The National Institute of Corrections, the jail architect and Department of Corrections made recommendations of 38, 36 and 32 full-time corrections deputies, respectively. At last count, there were 23 full-time deputies, Stephenson said, with part-time corrections officers used to offset overtime.
In addition to safety issues, Stephenson said the jail is the most likely operation for county government to be sued over. Lower staffing levels increase the odds of injuries or inmate fights.
“That’s a potential problem,” he said. “We want to see more people on the road patrol and in the jail.”
Stephenson said having a millage would just end up putting the road patrol on the chopping block every few years. “I’m not really against it but I’m not 100 percent for it,” he said.
He said Sheriff Jerry Nielsen has talked with several townships about contracting a patrol car and writing tickets under ordinances, but that is up to the people who live in the townships. “I don’t know that the townships are in a very good position to do that,” Stephenson said, adding one option might be for townships along M-20 to partner on writing tickets under ordinances to pay for a deputy to provide extra patrol on the highway.
The job of sheriff takes experience working with people, and Stephenson said he meets that qualification.
His experience includes working with human resources, the board of commissioners, administrator/controller, the courts, public, outside agencies and county employees outside the sheriff’s office. He also has had what he calls “extensive training” in proactive leadership, civil liability, command and staff, leadership and executive management, attended two different jail administrator schools, and national recognition as a certified jail manager.
“Through my years of working and training, I’ve developed a skill set that I believe makes me unique,” he said. He also has worked with federal officials and officials from other counties to set up contracts to house inmates. “You have to have the people skills.”
Stephenson said he would expand the sheriff’s office website to include weekly statistics so taxpayers can see where their money goes and submit tips, plus use new technology, including facial recognition software and auto license plate readers.
Concerning Sanford Lake Park, he said the current plan of placing two deputies and four to six reserve deputies at the park on Saturdays and Sundays has been effective.
“The presence alone has started to curtail some of the disorderly behavior out there.”