For a long time, Jeff Easter intentionally hung a big picture of his brother on his office wall behind him — so he wouldn’t have to see it.
Every time Jeff Easter saw Kevin Easter’s dimpled face in his blue sheriff’s uniform, he re-lived the night 16 years ago that a gang member shot his younger brother, a deputy, in the neck. Kevin Easter died at 24.
Eventually, Jeff Easter’s office got rearranged, and his brother’s picture ended up on the wall right in front of him in his Wichita police captain’s office at the Patrol North station he oversees. Easter decided to leave the picture there. Now, he can’t avoid it.
When Easter gets asked why he is running in the Aug. 7 Republican primary for Sedgwick County sheriff, he goes back to the night he lost his brother. “I realized life is very short better have goals and a life plan,” he said. “If you don’t, life is going to pass you by.”
So Easter got a degree in organizational management and leadership from Friends University and worked his way to captain. He went from thriving on the excitement of wrestling with criminals — in one struggle, a gang member pointed a semi-automatic handgun at his chest and pulled the trigger, but it failed to fire — to thriving on teaching younger officers. He went on to lead a multi-agency task force that used federal law, known as RICO, to treat a dominant street gang as an organized criminal group. In 2008, the task force decimated the gang with an onslaught of arrests and indictments. When Easter interviewed for the captain’s position that same year, he told Police Chief Norman Williams he wanted to become police chief or sheriff.
The 43-year-old considered running for sheriff in 2008. But he realized that he didn’t yet have 20 years of service and wasn’t fully vested in his retirement benefits, and he had the well-being of his wife and four children to consider. Now, after working 23 years for the Police Department, he’s opposing Sheriff Robert Hinshaw in the primary, with the endorsement of his police chief and other police officials. He also has received backing from the Fraternal Order of Police and Chief Deputy District Attorney Kim Parker.
In his first run for public office, Easter said, he’s “having a hard time with this political thing” because the campaign requires him to talk about himself. Retired police Lt. Ken Landwehr, who led the capture of serial killer Dennis Rader, is a father figure to him. What he admires about Landwehr is his humility. “I’m very team-oriented,” Easter said. “I’m not an ‘I’ person at all.”
Easter is not only speaking out about himself. He’s stepped up criticism of Hinshaw over his handling of an investigation of a sheriff’s jail deputy who recently resigned after being charged with multiple sex crimes against inmates.
District Attorney Nola Foulston recently said that sheriff’s personnel did not speak with her office about the first allegations against the deputy until a month and a day after a date cited by Hinshaw. She said prosecutors should have been notified immediately.
“I question the management of the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office” over its handling of the issue, Easter said.
“The DA’s office, what do they have to lose by putting that out? Nothing. What does he (Hinshaw) have to lose or gain? The election.”
The issue should matter to the public because taxpayers could pay for potential litigation over the allegations, he said.
Hinshaw said Easter is being unprofessional because he is commenting on another agency’s investigation without having all the facts.
Easter said his comments are focused on the management of the investigation, not the investigation itself. He said he feels compelled to address it because it reflects on leadership.
“First and foremost,” Easter said, “you have to have a trusting relationship with the district attorney,” who advises investigators on the law and decides whether charges are filed.
“The first phone call you’re making (as sheriff) is to the District Attorney’s Office that you have a law enforcement officer who’s accused of committing a crime,” Easter said.
The Sheriff’s Office hired David Kendall, the accused deputy, four years ago, when he was 18. Easter said he thought it was a bad idea when the Sheriff’s Office began hiring people as young as 18 to work in the jail. “I do not believe that 18-year-old right out of high school should be monitoring and working with the jail population,” Easter said. Hinshaw said that the policy of hiring people as young as 18 began under Gary Steed’s administration, that it is a practice used by jails across the United States, and that some 18-year-olds are well qualified.
Long before the jail issue arose, Easter said, he felt the sheriff’s management had become “kind of stagnant, status quo.”
“I have fostered folks to think outside the box,” Easter said, adding that he instituted a practice in which, when a serious crime occurs in the Patrol North quadrant, officers block off the street and go door to door to contact neighbors. “We get them in the middle of the street, and we talk about the issues,” Easter said. It brings neighbors together, builds trust with police and helps solve crimes, he said.
At the jail, which also is the subject of a lawsuit in federal court over alleged abuse of mentally ill inmates, deputies should wear body cameras, which can show whether inmates are making false allegations or deputies are abusing people in their custody, Easter said.
Easter also questions why Hinshaw has yet to begin housing mentally ill inmates in a separate area of the jail. Doing so would require all deputies to be properly trained to deal with that population, Easter said.
Easter described his management approach as “very situational,” adding that his style is “working with the staff and not being dictatorial.”
Landwehr, the former homicide unit supervisor who has become Easter’s campaign treasurer, said Easter impressed him with his knowledge of gang members. “He was very smart, and he knew a lot of the players, and that’s the main thing that you need from street officers” when a gang shooting occurs, Landwehr said.
“When he came upstairs as a sergeant” Landwehr said, “he had a passion” for leading. With the anti-gang task force investigation, Easter impressed law enforcement officials with his ability to work with different agencies — and work around egos, Landwehr said. “He inspires other guys,” he said.
In 2007, Easter was named the Police Department’s Officer of the Year.
Bobby Stout, former executive director of the Wichita Crime Commission, said Easter “is a hard-charger. You give him something to do, and he won’t quit. He will get it done.”
Easter said he still gets confused with the brother he lost. People sometimes introduce him as Kevin Easter.
“I am honored that people still remember my brother and my brother’s name,” he said. “That’s one of the things that my family always talked about, is they didn’t want him to be forgotten.”
It inspires him to think he could become head of the agency his brother worked for when he died.
The symbol of that inspiration is the picture on the wall in front of him — his brother in the same sheriff’s uniform Easter hopes to wear.