Three candidates for Teton County sheriff debated diversity and bilingualism in the sheriff’s office, the pros and cons of an online inmate list and how to recruit and retain officers during an election forum Monday at Teton County Library.
With incumbent Sheriff Jim Whalen retiring, voters have three choices for a new law enforcement leader: Republican Michelle Weber, Democrat Matt Carr or independent Slade Ross.
Candidates took questions from the public and the News&Guide during a forum organized by the League of Women Voters, the library and local media, including WyoFile, KHOL 89.1 and the News&Guide.
When asked what qualifies them to be sheriff, each candidate had a different answer.
“I have the most experience of all the candidates,” Ross said.
Carr, who serves as Teton County’s undersheriff, said his relationships with community organizations like One22, Teton Youth and Family Services and the Community Safety Network make him the most qualified.
“It’s imperative to have a sheriff who can work well with those organizations,” Carr said.
Weber said her dedication to the job makes her the best choice.
“One thing,” she said, “my genuine passion and commitment for law enforcement and my community.”
Candidates were asked if they agree with the county’s online inmate list, which publishes daily mugshots of incarcerated defendants in the Teton County Jail. The question was submitted by a News&Guide reader.
“It’s not about any sort of public shaming,” Carr said. “People make mistakes. But it’s about transparency. It is part of the public record. Transparency is critical.”
Ross said he recognizes that the website is very popular and that there might be an “outrage” if it was taken down.
“It was the most hit-on website we had when I was there,” said Ross, a former sheriff’s office employee. “It’s something people really like. But I’m sensitive to the public shaming and would be open to discussing it with the community.”
Weber said she doesn’t like the list.
“I am in favor of not doing what we do now,” she said. “I don’t think it’s funny that people pull up the list on their phone before they go to work.”
Whalen was unsure of the origin of the county inmate list. He believes it was created by a former sheriff and county attorney and isn’t even sure if the sheriff has the power to do away with it.
“Those are public record,” Whalen told the News&Guide. “I’d wonder if a judge would have to rule it unconstitutional in order to take action.”
All candidates support Spanish education within the sheriff’s office and agree that more sworn officers should be bilingual.
They also agree that the sheriff has an important role in strengthening local mental health services.
“It’s a very important part that’s well underfunded in this county,” Ross said. “I’ve spoken with a senator from Nevada who says he has a really good idea on how to increase funding, and he was successful where he comes from.”
“Mental illness is one of my three top issues I’d like to address, and I think there are three different ways to address it,” Weber said.
Weber said working with the hospital and mental health services is crucial and training officers in critical incident training is a priority for her.
Carr said he’s addressing mental health issues by working with Jackson Hole Community Counseling and serving on a behavioral services committee hosted at St. John’s Medical Center.
“It’s a group of leaders in the community who get together to talk about mental health issues,” Carr said. “Our goal is to have a coordinated community approach to solve these problems.”
Leading up to the election, the News&Guide is publishing candidates’ answers to particular questions. This week focuses on staff makeup and the lack of law enforcement officers who live in Teton County.
The question for candidates: The Teton County Sheriff’s Office is predominantly white. Jackson is becoming more diverse. Do you think mirroring the community is important? If yes, why?
Michelle Weber (R)
“Yes I certainly do, and I want to hire the candidates who will best serve the community and are able to engage with all the diverse sectors we have. The law requires you to be a U.S. citizen to be certified by the Wyoming Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission. Many of our Latino applicants don’t yet meet this basic requirement,” said Weber, a Jackson Police Department sergeant.
“But, having said that, I do believe there is hope for the future, as many second-generation Latino community members were born in the U.S. and will be eligible to hold law enforcement positions that satisfy state requirements. We should all want a balanced department in the way of diversity, but we also want to ensure that we hire people who are the best of the best, regardless of race or ethnicity or gender. If we can have both, we can have the best outcomes for the community.”
Slade Ross (I)
“I absolutely believe we should be recruiting from within our community,” Ross said. “Focusing on this diversity will help us to mirror our community. While we are required to follow state statutes for hiring, I believe we can do a better job of recruiting locally.”
Matt Carr (D)
“Mirroring our community is critical to all organizations in Teton County, including the sheriff’s office. We need to do all we can to attract qualified candidates that are representative of our community,” Carr said.
“Having Latino deputies and/or office staff would be of great benefit to our community. It would help build trust and relationships with a critical part of our community. I want the Teton County Sheriff’s Office to be a resource to all who live here. I will do all I can to make our office more representative of the community in which we live.”
The question for candidates: Most deputies live 40 miles away in Idaho or Star Valley. How do you plan to get more emergency responders to live in Teton County?
Matt Carr (D)
“As undersheriff of Teton County the lack of affordable housing makes it very difficult to maintain and recruit staff. Currently only three of our 19 patrol deputies live in Teton County. In my mind this puts our community at serious risk during emergency situations,” Carr said.
“We have witnessed this time and again, including two winters ago when a winter storm closed the access to our valley. That day there were two deputies on, one being myself, to respond to calls for service. Fortunately most folks stayed at home and schools were out of session. Through the Housing Trust and the Housing Authority we will soon be able to bring three more deputies back into our community. This is a cause to celebrate doubling our previous numbers, but we are still woefully short in numbers of deputies to effectively handle emergency situations in our community.”
“In short, I’m a tremendous supporter of all the organizations that support affordable housing in Teton County. I also feel that our community as a whole are supporters of getting emergency service workers back in Teton County, and I will continue working with our community partners to increase housing options for our officers.”
Slade Ross (I)
“I have long advocated for a housing allowance. We can easily follow the state model, which is evaluated yearly to make sure it is appropriate for the area,” Ross said. “I am also willing to collaborate with other organizations and landowners to secure housing for not only deputies but all emergency services.”
Michelle Weber (R)
“Being realistic, you can solve this with money for more housing, but is this practical? You cannot always spend your way out of a problem. With the average cost of a house in Teton County over $700,000, this is extremely challenging,” Weber said.
“The town/county has increased affordable housing options for first responders, but for those officers and deputies desiring their own home, yard and quiet space, the reality is they will continue to purchase homes in Idaho and Star Valley. Therefore, it will require creativity in scheduling that ensures we always have adequate staffing levels that meet the community’s needs,” Weber said.
“I have been in policing in Jackson for nearly two decades, and most of the time when you need large numbers of staffing it is for special events that can be planned for in advance. The TCSO also has the ability to partner with the Jackson Police Department to step in and augment staffing levels when needed, thus reducing the need to have every deputy living immediately in Jackson, where it might not be a financial reality for most. I will continue to look for opportunities, programs and partnerships that do provide housing options for new deputies in Teton County. I also support expanded START bus service that better reflects our hours of service and our shift schedules. Having a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. bus service would not only assist with our jail schedule employees, but would also serve other areas of the community such as St. John’s Medical Center.”