Jeff Easter, Republican candidate for Sedgwick County sheriff, still must face the Nov. 6 general election.
But it’s easy to argue that the sheriff’s race ended when Easter won the August primary by a 3-1 margin over Sheriff Robert Hinshaw.
The Democrat in the sheriff’s race, Jefrey Weinman, has not actively campaigned, has not appeared at candidate forums and declined to be interviewed as the election approaches. He conceded recently that he has not actively sought election, saying that the race is more about God than him. In a brief interview after the primary, Weinman said God told him to run for sheriff because “He wanted mercy for people in jail.”
Weinman, a retired Wichita police officer who was unopposed in the Democratic primary, doesn’t have nearly the name recognition and law enforcement resume that Easter has. Easter, a Wichita police captain, has extensive experience in community and gang policing and has commanded the Patrol North bureau for four years. Easter has plenty of high-profile endorsements, including Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams and the Wichita Police Department Fraternal Order of Police.
So for Easter, the run-up to the general election has not been anything like what he described as “the grind” and “hard-fought battle” in the primary. That race was dominated by issues revolving around the jail, particularly controversy over the Sheriff’s Office’s handling of a jail deputy charged with sex crimes against inmates.
Still, even with the seemingly decisive primary behind him, Easter continues to campaign and speak at candidate forums and will run more political ads soon. “You still have to get your name out there and what you stand for,” Easter said.
Easter said it makes sense for him to look ahead. Also, he said, voters should know how he would approach the job.
“I want to hit the ground running.”
He has been considering formation of a jail oversight group representing business leaders, residents and non-profit organizations.
“The jail, whether we like it or not, it’s a business,” Easter said. “We spend a lot of money to house these inmates. We spend a lot of money to send them to other counties.”
One possible way to save on transportation and overtime costs would be to keep inmates who need to be sent to other jails, because of crowding, closer to Sedgwick County, Easter said. As it is, he said, some inmates are being sent to the “far corners” of the state.
“In law enforcement … we also provide customer service, and part of customer service is making sure that taxpayer money is spent wisely.”
Easter said he would likely change the organizational structure so that the major in charge of the jail would report directly to the sheriff instead of the undersheriff.
“I am one that is pretty hands-on,” he said. “I think it’s important that that sheriff is in that jail, talking with employees” and inmates.
“We live in America. They (inmates) have rights. We have to protect them. That’s what the public entrusts in the sheriff … is to make sure their rights aren’t violated when they are in the jail.”
Working at the jail is challenging, he said, because some inmates “are very adept at conning people.” A jail deputy has to guard against being manipulated but also has to be accommodating, he said.
Another change he might consider, Easter said, is raising the minimum age for new jail deputies from 18 to 21. David Kendall, the deputy who has resigned and been charged with sex crimes against six inmates, was around 18 at the time he was hired. Although Kendall’s case is “an isolated incident,” Easter said, he wonders if an 18-year-old has enough maturity to handle the kinds of people who end up in the jail.
“You’re handling folks that have mental illness,” people who are gang members and people who have committed heinous crimes, he said. “And I don’t think a lot of high-schoolers have exposure to that before they’re 18. We’re putting people in a bad spot, in my opinion.”
Easter said he wants to look at personnel files to see if young jail deputies are having problems.
Although Easter said it is too early for him to discuss who might make up his command staff, he said his management philosophy is to surround himself with people who have expertise that he doesn’t. His experience is primarily in patrol and investigations, so he would seek someone with experience in budgeting and someone with experience running a jail.
“I also look for not just the ‘yes people,’ ” he said. “So I am looking for people who are not necessarily friends of mine,” who would challenge his ideas so the best decision can be made.
“You can’t just have somebody say, ‘Hey, you’re the sheriff. You do what you want.’ ”
“You can make group decisions” on some things, he said.
As for the remaining race, Easter said he is taking his Republican campaign to some of the more Democratic areas of the county. “I provide law enforcement to everybody. There’s no party lines when it comes to that.”
Anticipating that he is likely to win the general election, Easter said he has met with Hinshaw to discuss the transition. “Neither one of us have said I’ve won this thing, but you want to make it (the transition) as smooth as possible,” Easter said.
If he wins the general election, Easter would be 44 when he takes office.
He said he wouldn’t mind ending his career as sheriff. He noted that some of Sedgwick County’s sheriffs have managed to get re-elected over and over.
But there is no guarantee.
“You have to be on top of your game,” he said. “If you’re not performing, they can vote you out.”