EDMOND — EDITOR’S NOTE: A profile of Republican Darrell Sorrels will be published Oct. 27 in The Edmond Sun.
Sitting in his office on the first floor of the Oklahoma County jail facility, Sheriff John Whetsel, D-Choctaw, said his preference of political party makes no difference when it comes to public safety.
Whetsel said if he is re-elected on Nov. 6, an office he has held since 1997, he will support another effort to require that elections for the office of county sheriff be conducted on a non-partisan basis.
“I’m a true believer that law enforcement isn’t about being Democrat or Republican,” said Whetsel, who is being challenged by Republican Darrell Sorrels. “I don’t think the office of sheriff should be partisan.”
Senate Bill 327, by Sen. Rob Johnson, R-Kingfisher, attempted to make that change. The bill passed in the Senate, but was defeated in the House earlier this year and its status is dormant. It was one of a series of attempts in recent years. Similar legislation has been sought in relation to district attorneys.
“I’m going to be pushing for it next session, that we finally get to the point where the office is a non-partisan office just like judges,” Whetsel said.
Currently, voters elect Oklahoma Supreme Court justices and appellate court judges in non-partisan judicial retention races. Voters may vote either to retain or not retain these judicial officers.
FAMILY, FAITH AND FREEDOM
In 1949, Bill and Annie Whetsel moved to Midwest City. In 1960, they moved to Edmond. Bill was a pastor who started congregations in Oklahoma and Texas. The last one was Westminster Road Baptist Church in Midwest City.
“We grew up in the church,” Whetsel said.
Faith and hope have helped Whetsel through some tough times in his life. In 1980, his first wife and their 2-year-old daughter were killed in a car crash; their 4-year-old daughter was critically injured. The experience inspires him to improve traffic safety.
Faith also helped sustain him during the times when he has been attacked as a public official, Whetsel said.
“My faith is there,” said Whetsel, who with his wife Mitzi attend St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Edmond. “My faith is not gonna vary. It’s not going to leave me. It will always be there as the rock regardless of what life brings at you.”
Law enforcement personnel regularly see the consequences of criminal behavior. Whetsel said during his 44-year career he has never had a complaint filed against him related to excessive force or police brutality, a source of pride.
He also expanded a non-denominational jail ministry with more than 100 regular volunteers who make thousands of contacts requested by inmates. It has reduced inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-officer violence, Whetsel said.
“My philosophy has always been if you arrest someone on the streets of Oklahoma County and you put them in jail, all you do is change your location,” Whetsel said. “If you’re in jail and you’re able to change their heart, then you’ve been able to change their future.”
When they’re released, they may return to their life of crime or if they’re changed in jail they may change their actions on the street, Whetsel said.
In 1958, Whetsel earned his first paycheck in the amount of $1 for a day’s work. It taught him the value of a dollar, he said. If he saw a penny on a street he picked it up because pennies added up to dollars.
In 1967, Whetsel began his law enforcement career when he joined the Choctaw Police Department. He served as police chief there for 21 years before being elected county sheriff.
Whetsel said what he learned about the value of money reminds him that the dollars he manages to run an agency are from taxpayers.
“You spend that money with respect because this is hard-earned money,” he said. “The majority of people who pay taxes don’t have a whole lot of money to pay, but it’s required of them to operate their government and to be frugal about that operation.”
WHETSEL’S RECORD, GOALS
Regarding accomplishments, Whetsel points to items such as opening more substations at Quail Springs Mall, Crossroads Mall and Deer Creek, expanding the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office’s patrol division and the agency’s warrants squad, periodic sobriety checkpoints, new jail communications systems, crime prevention programs and citizen outreach efforts.
The agency has 805 full-time employees and 200 reserve deputies, Whetsel said. About 500 full-time employees work in the jail. Recent boosts in technology include the jail’s surveillance camera system and deputies with new mobile data computers that provide instant access to criminal records inside their patrol cars.
The sheriff’s office has jurisdiction in more than 150 square miles of unincorporated areas in Oklahoma County. During the past 15 years, the crime rate in those areas has dropped 86 percent, and the traffic crash rate has been reduced by 92 percent, Whetsel said.
Whetsel also points to recent national accreditation and how the jail continues to pass federal inspections despite its poor design and inadequate funding. New detention officers must pass extensive safety-related training.
A looming issue is the fate of the jail, which has a capacity of 2,872 inmates (the Tulsa County jail capacity is 1,714), according to April 2011 data from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. County officials are facing a decision on whether to renovate the current site or build a new facility at a different location.
Whetsel said he will make a decision on how to proceed when a needs assessment is completed within the next 60-90 days. To make a decision without all the facts is irresponsible, he said. Some things like sight lines and direct verses indirect supervision cannot be fixed in the existing jail, he said.
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