County jail presents sticking point in sheriff race

The two men vying to be Oklahoma County sheriff have two different priorities when it comes to the job.

“My number one issue is crime, keeping people safe,” said the man who currently holds the sheriff’s office, John Whetsel, D-Choctaw.

“The jail would be my priority,” was the response from Whetsel’s opponent, Jim Heitmeyer, R-Del City.

The two candidates have plenty of experience for the job. Heitmeyer’s background involves nearly three decades of jail management and law enforcement. Whetsel comes armed with more than 10 years experience of actually doing the job. He was first elected to the post in 1996 and has received voter approval two more times in 2000 and 2004.

The sheriff’s office is the primary law enforcement agency for 150 square miles of unincorporated area in Oklahoma County.

“Over the last 12 years, we’ve been able to work with our citizens and literally reduce crime by 90 percent and traffic crashes by 92 percent, even though the population has increased over 500 percent,” Whetsel said.

Heitmeyer, 58, worked as an Oklahoma County sheriff deputy for 21 years. He has strong feelings about the way Whetsel has run the county jail.

“His priority has never been the jail,” Heitmeyer said. “It’s been a Band-Aid fix to a long-term solution.”

Problems with the jail have existed for years, but those problems came to the forefront after a U.S. Department of Justice report released in August described the jail as a violent, overcrowded and mismanaged facility. A county task force was assembled to look into solutions for the jail. Whetsel hired a jail administrator the same week the report came out.

But the sheriff said the report is a bit behind the times.

“It came 15 months after they had visited and 12 months after we had responded to it,” Whetsel said. “Most of the issues identified in the report were a snapshot of 15 months earlier and those issues that we can address have been addressed.”

Some solutions being tossed around include renovating or remodeling the current jail or building a new jail. Heitmeyer opposes a new jail.

“I don’t see any sense in building a new jail that’s going to cost millions of millions of dollars for the taxpayers,” Heitmeyer said. “It’s not necessary. It can be repaired. The architectural design is not beyond being repaired. With proper management and leadership, the jail will run smooth.”

Besides the issue of the jail, Heitmeyer said he also wants to set up programs to better serve the community. The programs would include a voluntary force to inspect nursing homes, and a roadside assistance service to help people when their cars break down. The service would involve sheriff deputies or employees providing simple assistance when cars run out of gas or get flat tires. Heitmeyer said even if simple assistance could not be provided, a deputy could stand watch until better auto service arrived.

Whetsel touts his leadership in helping to provide more deputies on the force, and creating new public crime prevention programs. “Scott Cooper

Scott Cooper

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