Like catching a glimpse of Halley’s Comet, the opportunity to pick a new Clark County sheriff has only come around once in the last generation.
The winner of November’s general election will replace Garry Lucas, the county’s sheriff since 1991. But first, the four candidates will face off in the August primary, in which only the top two vote-getters will move on to the general election.
While it’s not exactly the 70-plus-year cycle between Halley Comet sightings, the uncommon state of this election is not lost on the four candidates campaigning to take the reins of the sheriff’s office. Ballots for the Aug. 5 primary are currently available and are being mailed today.
“It’s an important election,” said candidate Shane Gardner, a community outreach sergeant for the sheriff’s office. “This isn’t someone running against the status quo. But in a manner, it is us running against the status quo. The world is changing.”
One example Gardner points to is the use of online social networking tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, in outreach efforts and in solving crimes. He points to how Facebook was used to track down a missing Camas teen. It’s been used to solve other crimes, too, he said.
That’s just one shift, said Gardner, whose campaign emphasizes building community partnerships.
“Times are changing in law enforcement,” he said. “I think it’s paramount that the foundation for the next chapter is based on the community.”
The other candidates don’t dispute that, but the differences are in the details.
Chuck Atkins, a retired sheriff’s office commander, agreed that more could be done to build community partnerships. He points to store managers who, he said, have complained to law enforcement about organized shoplifting rings.
That’s led Atkins to ask, “How do we help local retail establishments curb their thefts?”
He’s suggested fomenting a closer partnership with local retail groups to stamp out organized shoplifting. He’s also sat down with representatives from the state’s bail agents association to discuss ways to expedite an inmate’s ability to post bail.
Barriers to that, he said, are in how conditions for release are set by the courts. Atkins said he has been discussing ways to set conditions for release earlier than they currently are, saving the county the $81 a day it costs to house an inmate.
More extravagant changes have been proposed by John Graser, a retired commander, and Ed Owens, a former detective.
Owens, in particular, said he wants more transparency, calling for citizen involvement at every level of the sheriff’s office.
The former deputy has been embroiled in a years-long legal fight with the office stemming from the accidental, self-inflicted shooting death of his 3-year-old son.
The sheriff’s office fired Owens in 2011 following an investigation into the death. According to reports, the boy wandered into his parents’ closet and grabbed Owens’ service pistol. It discharged.
Owens is currently suing the sheriff’s office for wrongful termination. A separate lawsuit names the manufacturer of the gun safe, which Owens said was faulty for not properly locking. An investigation into the safe concluded that it wasn’t working properly — sometimes popping back open when it should have been locked — but also that both parents knew about the problem.
Owens brushed aside notions that his candidacy stemmed from bad blood between him and the sheriff’s office, but added that he did want to change the culture within the office.
“The culture within law enforcement develops an us-versus-them mentality,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of resistance to this.”
At the same time, he said he would do more to take care of deputies by bolstering mental and emotional health programs for cops, who see high rates of alcoholism and divorce. One order of business, Owens said, would be creating a new position that would act as a counselor and advocate for employees.
Graser agreed that advocating for mental health programs should be a priority for the sheriff. But he said it’s important to look at who is being incarcerated by reaching out to the mental health community.
“I want our community to embrace the mentally ill,” he said, “not incarcerate them.”
The corrections division of the sheriff’s office should pull people with mental illnesses out of the general population, as long as they are low-level offenders, and place them into a separate facility that would be managed by mental health professionals, he said.
That facility would be housed at the Jail Work Center, he said.
He said he would also work to put more deputies on the streets by pulling a number of employees off of administrative, desk duties following a “workflow analysis.” That plan would not dip into investigative or special units to accomplish that goal, he said.
“When we are short-handed on the road,” Graser said, “we need to make use of all the resources we have.”
As the primary approaches, the candidates are preparing for the last candidate forum before the election.
It will take place 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Columbia Room of the Vancouver Community Library, 901 C St.