Candidates Joe Harper, Garry McKinnis and Kevin Woodward have fielded a variety of questions over the course of their campaigns to fill the role of Payne County Sheriff.
Woodward, the former Undersheriff, was appointed in Sept. 2019 to complete former Sheriff R.B. Hauf’s term. He is running for his first full term and says he has been dragging Payne County into the 21st Century in terms of its technology, which enables the department to serve the county more efficiently. He cites an improved website that offers the public more access to information about the department and the addition of in-car and body cameras to protect both deputies and the public as improvements he has made.
McKinnis also served as Undersheriff for Hauf and former sheriff Carl Hiner. He says he is coming out of retirement because he believes Payne County deserves better service than it is getting from the department and sees a need to use limited funding more carefully with an emphasis on training and necessary equipment.
Deputy Joe Harper, a 17-year veteran of the Payne County Sheriff’s Office who leads the tracking team and serves as a livestock investigator, also says he is running because he sees a need for change in the department. That includes a stronger public presence, more training and better equipment for the department’s deputies.
When asked about their opinions on open carry of firearms, McKinnis said the first thing he thinks of is retention. What kind of training does that person have and how are they going to keep control of their gun so it isn’t used on them?
The candidates were asked about their stances on the 2nd Amendment and on “red flag” laws, which have not been passed in Oklahoma but if adopted would allow guns to be temporarily seized from individuals a judge believes to be a threat to themselves or someone else.
All said they support and would be willing to protect the 2nd Amendment. Woodward said he would refuse to enforce red flag laws or laws requiring registration of guns.
Harper said due process is important and he also won’t support red flag laws.
Woodward and Harper both said they would resign rather than obey an order to enforce a law they consider to be unconstitutional, like a red flag law.
The 2nd Amendment is what allows U.S. citizens to protect themselves from their government, Woodward said.
Addressing general concerns, Harper and McKinnis have said they believe the Sheriff needs to be out in the county more, especially in the smaller communities.
McKinnis touted his leadership in getting more qualified in-house instructors at the Sheriff’s Office, to make training more available. He says there still needs to be improvement and more emphasis on hands-on training that develops muscle memory instead of just watching videos.
Harper concurred, saying there is training offered but it needs to be made more available to more of the staff.
Woodward said his officers average 50 hours of continuing education a year, nearly twice the state requirement, and he is building relationships with other departments, like the Stillwater Police Department and OSU Police Department to hold joint trainings.
Computers in the department’s vehicles allows deputies to remain in the field and complete reports instead of driving back to the office, which improves response times, Woodward said.
There are only two deputies working most of the time, one on the east side of the county and one on the west, although shifts sometimes overlap and up four could be out for a limited time.
The department has 42 certified deputies, 15 of whom are on patrol. The remainder work in courthouse security, service and transport. There are also three certified officers in the jail.
Harper said the department’s technological upgrades have been done “in bits and pieces” and some deputies still don’t have computers in their cars. Some vehicles also have very high mileage and officers need new ballistic vests.
Woodward said he worked with the Cushing Police Department to install a computer in its offices so the east side deputy, who didn’t have a computer in his vehicle, could stay on the east side of the county instead of hanging around in Stillwater.
The candidates were asked about improvements they would like to see in the department over the next four years.
Harper said he would like to see the deputies out in public more instead of being in the office – one of the biggest concerns he’s heard from the public during this campaign – and he would like to continue upgrading equipment for all deputies.
McKinnis said he would like to improve dependability and to solve more crimes.
Woodward said he sees being more open with the public as a goal for the next four years. He would also like to see further development of partnerships like the multi-jurisdictional anti-crime task force formed to share information with other counties and recover stolen property.
Although all three candidates view working with other agencies as a good thing, there were concerns about issues like cross-deputization of officers from smaller departments and combined 911 dispatch.
Letting go of control and ensuring the other officers and dispatchers meet the county’s standards were concerns expressed by Harper.
Woodward said Lincoln County has already combined its dispatch successfully. He said PCSO has already cross-deputized tribal police to assist in tracking sex offenders.
McKinnis said he isn’t sure if he would support centralized dispatch but he knows cross-deputization works, because the county has been doing it for years with tribal police and other departments in the county.
When asked about addressing a perceived problem with methamphetamine in the eastern half of the county with a task force or some other effort, Harper said PCSO has multiple officers who are well-versed in drug investigations and others who are training. He said he works closely with the Stillwater Police Department and many other resources are available.
McKinnis said K9 officers are vital in that effort. The department has a new K9 and he would like to bring another online to help not just with drugs, but with tracking and apprehension.
Woodward said changes in laws that made possession a misdemeanor didn’t help the situation. He said he believes law enforcement needs to educate the public and the legislature about the impact when laws are considered. Mental health concerns must also be addressed, he said.
When asked if they would consider establishing a satellite office in Yale, McKinnis said the department just can’t afford to do that.