ONE way or another, residents in Delaware County will be made to pay for the misdeeds of former employees in the sheriff's office. Folks in Custer County know the feeling. Residents across the state should pay attention.
On the ballot Tuesday in Delaware County is a proposal to increase the county's sales tax by half a cent for 17 years. That's how long officials figure it will take to raise the $13.5 million the county is paying to settle a civil rights lawsuit filed by 15 former female inmates who say they were sexually abused while in custody.
State law mandates that such judgments be paid with property taxes over three years unless another means of payment is found. So if the sales tax idea is rejected, property taxes will jump by as much as 18 percent for the next three years. Residents are understandably miffed. “The men who did wrong — they are the ones who should have to pay,” one woman said.
But one of them, Bill Sanders, is dead. He was a volunteer deputy whose job was to transport inmates. In early 2008, a female inmate filed a complaint against Sanders; the sheriff at the time, Jay Blackfox, says his office investigated and passed its report on to the district attorney. The DA says his office never received it.
Sanders continued to work for the office and later that year four other inmates filed complaints against him and a former jail administrator. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation looked into it and gave a report to the district attorney, who didn't file charges. Sanders died in November 2008, and in early 2009 four women filed a federal civil rights case. Eventually the number of women who said they had been groped or sexually assaulted by their jailers grew to 15.
Blackfox resigned and the jail administrator was fired. Both have denied wrongdoing. County commissioners in November 2011 agreed to the settlement, concerned the price tag could be much higher if they lost at trial.
A similar scene played out in Custer County, in western Oklahoma, where in early 2009 former Sheriff Mike Burgess was sentenced to 79 years in prison for sexually abusing female inmates and drug court participants. That criminal case netted him a long prison stretch and $15,000 in fines. But it netted taxpayers a bill, too.
In 2010, Custer County commissioners agreed to a $10 million settlement of a federal lawsuit filed by 14 female inmates who alleged they were abused by Burgess and some deputies. County residents are paying that bill through increased property taxes.
The mother of one of the victims in the Burgess case said she didn't feel bad for Custer County residents because “those people voted him into office ... maybe now they'll think twice” before casting their ballot, she said.
There's some truth in that. However it's also incumbent on the professionals to hold each other accountable. The Oklahoma Sheriffs' Association and CLEET, the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training, are among the agencies that offer programs designed to bolster professional behavior. Some in law enforcement argue that better pay for jailers is needed, but a central figure in the Delaware County case was a volunteer.
Steve Emmons, CLEET's executive director, said recently that he teaches officers “to be on guard of their ethical behavior because anybody is susceptible to breaking down ethically.” When that happens, it can be very costly indeed.