A retired sheriff's deputy who touts membership in a far right-wing political group said it's time for Oklahoma County voters to fire their sheriff of 16 years.
The incumbent sheriff, for his part, said his re-election campaign strategy is simple: He wants to continue his long, successful record of reducing crime and keeping county residents safe.
Darrell Sorrels, a self-professed member of the John Birch Society and a 2007 sheriff's department retiree, said he can do a better job of managing the department and the county jail than his former boss, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel.
With 800 full-time employees and a reserve deputy roster of 200, the sheriff oversees the county's largest department. Tasked with providing law enforcement for 150 square miles of unincorporated areas in the county, the sheriff's office also assists local police departments, serves process papers in criminal and civil cases, and manages the county jail.
Whetsel, sheriff since 1997, said crime incidents in the unincorporated areas of Oklahoma County have been reduced by 86 percent since he took office despite a fourfold increase in population. Traffic crashes were reduced by 92 percent during the same time period, he said.
He attributed the reductions to the establishment of a traffic safety unit, increased deputies in the department's patrol division and new crime prevention programs developed on his watch.
“We have been recognized nationally for the great things our employees are doing, and I think the citizens have recognized that and awarded that with very positive vote returns in past elections,” Whetsel said. “I have faith and confidence in our citizens to see what's going on … and to do that again.”
Sorrels, a contract officer for the U.S. Marshals Service, providing security at the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City, said he would boost morale and reduce turnover at the sheriff's department by streamlining its management and reallocating department funds so that law enforcement would have “a more visible presence in the county.”
Among other propositions: revise a top-heavy employee pay scale, auction excessive vehicles and equipment, and make the sheriff's department more transparent overall.
His first act as sheriff, Sorrels said, would be to order a financial and performance audit of the department. He also said he will oppose construction of a new county jail.
Jail is campaign issue
Oklahoma County commissioners last spring contracted with a Georgia company to prepare recommendations for a new jail. The proposal is intended to resolve the last of 60 deficiencies outlined by a scathing 2007 U.S. Department of Justice report.
Early project estimates put the price tag for a new jail at $330 million, but Sorrels said $40 million in renovations and upgrades to the current facility would suffice.
Whetsel has said he will wait to see the consultant group's recommendation before endorsing a plan.
“But he's on the same lines as (President Barack) Obama — a big spender who spends money where he wants to spend it,” Sorrels said. “The platform he ran on 16 years ago was he was going to fix the jail and it has done nothing but got worse at the jail.”
Sorrels said 56 of the deficiencies outlined by the Justice Department concerned jail management — specifically, overcrowding and understaffing — and that Whetsel neglected to respond until the federal government forced his hand.
But Whetsel said Sorrels' criticisms are not based on fact. He said his response to the Justice Department report was immediate, and that if progress was slow it was because funding required for additional personnel and technology improvements was hard to come by.
Whetsel said the department lost $3 million in revenue when federal inmates were removed from the county jail due to overcrowding in 2008, but said the department replaced that income by housing state inmates.
Last spring, the Justice Department deemed all but the facility-related deficiencies resolved, he said.
“We have cleared almost every hurdle with the Department of Justice in meeting their recommendations with the exception of the issues that deal with the building,” he said.
Whetsel said turnover at the jail is about 20 percent, which meets or exceeds national averages, and said the department reduced administration staff from six to four in the past two years.
The election is scheduled for Nov. 6. Polls will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.