The candidates for Payne County Sheriff met in Yale Tuesday night for their second forum.
All three men are Republicans, so the race will most likely be decided in the Republican primary election on Tuesday. If no candidate captures at least 50.1 % of the vote, a run-off primary will be held in August.
Sheriff Kevin Woodward, who was appointed in September 2019 after Sheriff R.B. Hauf retired, said he is honored to hold the position and would like to continue. He is running to earn his first full term.
Former Undersheriff Garry McKinnis said he is coming out of retirement because he feels like Payne County, especially the rural areas and small towns, deserve better service than they are currently getting from the Sheriff’s Office.
Joe Harper, a 17-year deputy at the Payne County Sheriff’s Office, said he feels the department needs to be doing more, especially in terms of getting out in the community.
“We need to be taking better care of the citizens and responding to their concerns,” Harper said.
Both Harper and McKinnis said they agree that the Sheriff’s office is big enough to require a lot of time in the office, but they also believe the Sheriff should be seen out in the community.
“We get involved with technology and other things and we forget to come and ask you guys ‘What do you need?’” McKinnis said.
Woodward said he believes the Sheriff’s primary job is to serve the public, but emphasized that the office also operates a detention facility, which makes it responsible for the wellbeing of those inmates.
He said the question is: How do you do that?
“If this was ‘Longmire’ (with) four people, you could have fun and be out in the field the whole day. But this is a 100-person department,” Woodward said. “It’s tough to get through the day without 10 emergencies.”
He said the department has great deputies who are the ones out in the field, and he’s there to support them.
When asked about the most pressing issue facing law enforcement, both Harper and McKinnis cited a lack of presence in the community.
McKinnis went further in tying part of the issue to staffing restrictions due to COVID-19. He said it complicates things further during a time of civil unrest.
Woodward said he believes there is an issue with how law enforcement is seen. He believes there is a backlash due to a few bad officers. He says getting out and communicating with the public is important.
Several questions dealt with Black Lives Matter protests and the civil unrest centered around systemic racism, police shootings and instances of police brutality.
When asked if they felt they should enforce the law strictly or cave to public opinion, McKinnis said he believes it is his job to enforce the law “but there comes a time for common sense.”
He said sometimes it’s not about just being tough. It’s also important to have common sense and compassion.
Woodward said he won’t back down, he’ll protect the public.
They were asked about police reform, the movement to shift funding from police to other services and de-escalation training.
Woodward said the department averages double the required number of hours and works with other departments on training that covers a variety of topics, including defensive tactics and de-escalation.
Harper said he believes the training needs to be made more available to all deputies, because they aren’t always communicated well. The department needs better de-escalation classes, he said.
McKinnis said he also believes training should be improved. There needs to be testing and the training needs to be hands-on to develop muscle memory.
The candidates were asked if they believe Black Lives Matter and Antifa are terrorist groups.
Both McKinnis and Woodward said there are bad actors in every group.
Harper said he has spoken with friends who are Black in recent weeks to hear what they think. The general members of these organizations just want a change, they just want to be heard, he said.
When asked if they would be out in the community as Sheriff, all said they would do that.
Harper said he would continue to perform some functions he is most qualified to do, like working livestock cases.
McKinnis said there are 100 employees but he would delegate where he could so he can get out of the office.
Woodward said he is starting to get out of the office more, and going to a lot of meetings.
McKinnis said he believes the Sheriff needs to be out in the communities and the department could improve response times through scheduling the right people in the right places.
Woodward said he has slowly been dragging Payne County into the 21st Century in terms of technology. He views it as a tool that helps the department serve the county more quickly and efficiently.
Ultimately, Harper said he believes the Sheriff and deputies need to be physically present in a greater portion of the county. He cited old equipment and vehicles with high mileage and no computers in them as problems that still need to be addressed. The technology is not available to all.
All three candidates said the Sheriff’s office has funding set aside for a “rainy day” that will get it through the funding crunch caused by COVID-19 and the drop in sales tax from business closures.
McKinnis said he would also cut spending on non-essentials, look closely at travel expenses, cut overtime pay and utilize his staff more flexibly.
McKinnis and Harper weren’t sure if they favor moving Payne County to a centralized dispatch system. Woodward said it has been proposed and other counties have done it.
All said they support the 2nd Amendment and would uphold the constitution.
Woodward went further, saying he would refuse to enforce any “red flag” laws that would call for guns owned by someone judged to be dangerous to themselves or others to be temporarily confiscated.
Woodward was asked to directly address rumors that he is not a resident of Payne County.
He said he moved to Payne County one year ago, when he was appointed as Sheriff.