MOUNT VERNON — Perception of coverage was a noticeable difference that surfaced in Thursday night's debate between the two candidates vying for the Republican nomination for Knox County Sheriff.
Incumbent sheriff David Shaffer divides the county into four areas and rotates deputies among those areas.
“We base our patrol areas on the entire county as well as areas that have higher activity,” said Shaffer. “I know there have been claims, especially by my opponent, that we ignore the outlying areas. That is absolutely not true.”
Shaffer said that looking at numbers for the county's 22 townships, there is no drop-off in service or call volume in any township that does not correlate with a drop-off countywide.
He said the Knox County Sheriff's Office maintains a patrol presence, has added two patrol deputies in the past several years, and tries to maintain staffing levels. Shaffer has a connection with all townships, attends quarterly township trustee meetings, has regular dialogue with the trustees, and for the past several years has provided a monthly report to township trustees so that they are aware of the activity in their township.
Challenger and Danville Police Chief Daniel Weckesser said he plans to serve all of the county by assigning individual deputies to attend township meetings for a “more direct line of communication with all of our citizens.”
Weckesser said that several years ago he was approached about starting an eastern Knox police department that would cover the six townships served by the Eastern Knox Joint Fire District. Running the numbers, he found that to be too expensive.
In 2010, the Danville Police Department had 560 calls. That escalated to 2,300 in 2016.
“When I pulled the townships from 2010 to 2016, I didn't see the progression in calls as what Danville had increased,” he said.
Weckesser said that over the years as Danville police chief, several individuals asked him to assist with calls throughout the county; he referred those requests to the KCSO. He said there have been several times certain calls were never handled, and cited one instance where an offender who destroyed a senior citizen's barn "walked away and was never charged."
“All of our taxpayers and citizens, even in the outlying areas, deserve the same police protection and patrol as the more populated areas,” he said.
As to what is the biggest challenge facing the KCSO, Weckesser cited transparency and the drug epidemic.
“Citizens need to know a lot more about what goes on. … I believe we need to continue to be relentless in the pursuit of dealers that are bringing drugs to Knox County,” he said.
Shaffer cited an increase in fraud calls (a 65% increase last year) and crash reports (up 31% in 2019 due to understaffing at the Ohio State Highway Patrol) and mental health issues as the biggest challenges.
“Mental health issues are huge in the county,” he said. “The attempts at suicide and the suicide calls that our officers respond to are ever increasing, and the drug issue is obviously a problem also.”
Weckesser agreed that fraud is increasing and believes there should be town hall meetings and more effort to educate citizens on how scammers operate.
The candidates also discussed jail overcrowding and possible solutions. Locally, the inmate population has remained steady over the past several years, averaging 80+ inmates a month. Last year was the highest with an average of 88 a month.
Shaffer said that, similar to other counties statewide, the female population has soared. Legislative changes at the state level eliminating prison sentences for some fifth- and fourth-degree felonies have also contributed to jail overpopulation, as has inmate recurrence rates.
Regarding solutions, Shaffer said that he is working proactively with the courts as far as probation and parole to alleviate overcrowding. Concerning adding another dorm (24 beds) to the jail, he said that is an expensive proposition at $1.9 million, plus operational costs of $394,000 a year in addition to personnel and utility costs.
“Mental health is a huge issue,” he said. “If you can eliminate some of that population that should not even be there to begin with, that would free up some jail space.”
Noting the lack of mental health and lock-down facilities in the state, Shaffer said that finding more locations for mental health rehabilitation and suicide watch inmates would alleviate overcrowding.
Weckesser agreed one solution is more help for those with mental health issues as well as for veterans.
“The more we can help these citizens and not jail them, the better off we will all be,” he said. “As far as expanding the jail, I would say that is something I would reluctantly want to do, but if it has to be done, I would be all for it because I would rather some of these criminals be behind bars than out victimizing more of our citizens.”
On the question of keeping prisoners safe and eliminating contraband, Weckesser said that the body scanners recently installed are very valuable. He also said that if funding is available, he would deploy a dog in the jail to find hidden contraband. He believes a K-9 unit would also help increase prisoner compliance.
Shaffer said he has instituted two programs that increase safety and reduce contraband. Video visitation cuts down on inmate movement and potential inmate interactions while at the same time expanding the time frame inmates can talk with their family members. Scanning inmate mail, other than legal documents, and uploading it to the visitation kiosks eliminates the chance of contraband smuggled in via cards and correspondence.
The final question the candidates fielded involved providing resources to help inmates begin addiction recovery. Shaffer said he has instituted a full-time Freedom Center employee on site to assess inmates and help those who fit the criteria for drug rehab get into recovery programs. He said space availability limits additional on-site programs.
Weckesser said that he would add a few more programs as well as continue all programs currently in use. One program he would add is giving pastors easier and better access to talk to the inmates and rehabilitable individuals.
In closing, Shaffer said that being sheriff and chief law enforcement officer in the county is a huge responsibility. Citing the variety of responsibilities in addition to law enforcement, such as marine patrol, court security, sheriff's sales and tax foreclosures, he said “it is much more complex than a village police department.”
“You can't buy experience,” he said.
“I definitely understand the difference between a village police department and the sheriff's office,” responded Weckesser. “I can assure you that I will do everything I need to do to learn and to make the Knox County Sheriff's Office run efficiently and to make it the strongest and safest it's ever been.”
Shaffer is a 1985 graduate of the Ohio Peace Officer Academy at Central Ohio Technical College. He started full time with the Fredericktown Police Department in 1987 and joined the KCSO in 1993. He was elected sheriff in 2013, has won many awards, and has more than 100 hours of training and continuing education.
Weckesser entered law enforcement after running his own auto repair business for 30 years. A graduate of COTC's police academy, he became Danville's police chief in 2016. Before becoming chief, he served 14 years with the Danville Police Department. He reinstituted the DARE program in the Danville school district and expanded it to include Amish schools, has worked with Danville's K-9 units, and is involved with local drug task forces.
Knox Pages, the Mount Vernon News, WMVO/WQIO, and Mount Vernon University sponsored the debate. To view the debate, go to mvnu.tv.