After 33 years with the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, Robert Hinshaw has covered his office walls with things that mean something to him.
The 54-year-old keeps a display of Scouting badges he earned as a teen. To become an Eagle Scout, he had to learn first-aid and life-saving skills, the value of helping others, problem-solving. It quickly led to a career in law enforcement.
By age 20, he was an emergency dispatcher, then a reserve deputy. As a reserve, he was the first to reach the scene of a fatal accident on a dirt road. In the darkness, he used first-aid skills he learned as a Boy Scout to check on the injured. As veterans arrived, he thought he would be working in a secondary role. But he said a sheriff’s sergeant “came up and said, ‘No, you’re working this accident.’ ”
Hinshaw said he didn’t set out to become sheriff. Instead, he focused on steps: from jail deputy to road patrol, road patrol to detective, detective to sergeant, to lieutenant, captain, major, undersheriff. He felt his career would have been a success if he had retired as a sergeant. But he kept rising. He was smart, and he applied himself.
After Gary Steed became sheriff, Hinshaw became a major overseeing the jail, essentially a small city with an average daily population of 1,500 and inherent challenges and problems. Steed later appointed Hinshaw to undersheriff, and when Steed decided not to seek re-election, he encouraged Hinshaw to run.
Hinshaw figures he has done, or supervised, every job in the Sheriff’s Office. Former Sheriff Mike Hill, who is endorsing Hinshaw in the Aug. 7 Republican primary, promoted Hinshaw four times. Hinshaw said he also has received endorsements from Vern Miller, the former sheriff, district attorney and state attorney general, and former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt. While working for others, Hinshaw said, he put pressure on himself to make his bosses look good.
After Hinshaw was elected sheriff in 2008, he felt a tremendous relief. No matter how bad things might get, he said, “the only one I’m going to make look bad is me. … I’m responsible strictly for myself.”
As sheriff, he oversees about 537 people. “My bosses are the voters of Sedgwick County,” he says.
He also embraces the idea of “Don’t get caught up in the job. Be yourself,” and in that spirit, his wife gave him a plaque, which hangs behind his desk.
“Let Hinshaw be Hinshaw,” it says.
Hinshaw said he is being himself — confident in his record and open to the public – in responding to criticism of the Sheriff’s Office’s recent handling of an investigation into allegations that a jail deputy sexually assaulted inmates.
The criticism comes from Wichita police Capt. Jeff Easter, who is vying with Hinshaw in the primary. Easter faults Hinshaw and the Sheriff’s Office for the way it managed the investigation. Specifically, Easter said, the Sheriff’s Office should have notified the District Attorney’s Office much sooner of allegations against the jail deputy, David Kendall, who is facing multiple sex-crimes charges and has resigned.
Hinshaw said of Easter’s criticism: “I am a little bit … taken aback because Jeff (Easter) is a professional cop, and typically, one law enforcement agency is not going to comment on another agency. That has been standard procedure for us and the WPD. It’s an awareness that if you’re not doing the investigation, you’re not managing the investigation.
“To take this incident, because bad things do happen in jails, and use this for a political reason is really contrary to what I perceive as professional law enforcement. You’re going to start tainting a potential jury pool.
“He’s offering a criticism, and he certainly has a right to do so, but since he was not involved in the investigation and the management of the investigation, he does not have all the facts,” Hinshaw said.
Hinshaw said he was being responsive and transparent to the public when he held a July 13 news conference in which he gave a detailed time line of his office’s investigation of the allegations against the jail deputy.
Hinshaw said he welcomes innovation from his staff and told them they are free to raise issues with him without repercussions. He said he has reduced his budget by about $1.8 million without hurting policing on the street, added a detective to help investigate Internet crimes against children and addressed defense lawyers’ concerns about accessibility to their clients in jail on weekends.
Since he became sheriff, Hinshaw said, he has advocated for a mental health pod within the jail, “but that takes money.” His proposed budget for the coming year called for almost $150,000 for additional mental health staffing, part of a total of about $391,000, including modifications and additional security, to serve mentally ill inmates in a separate pod. The budgeting authority rests with county commissioners, not the sheriff, and the recommended budget submitted by the county manager to commissioners doesn’t include the funding, Hinshaw said.
Bobby Stout, former executive director of the Wichita Crime Commission and a current member of the sheriff’s civil service board, which is appointed by county commissioners, said the jail is a challenge for any sheriff. “Nothing good ever happens at the jail,” Stout said.
Stout, who said he is not publicly supporting a candidate in the sheriff’s race, described Hinshaw as “a good communicator.”
“He seems comfortable with anybody,” Stout said. “He was loyal to the people he worked for. He worked his way from the very bottom to become sheriff. Bob is an intellectual as well as a damn good administrator. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t like Jeff Easter.”
Hinshaw cites initiatives including an increased focus on the sheriff’s gang unit, creation of a coalition on animal cruelty, development of two inmate work programs that provide job training, expansion of the K-9 unit, and beginning the practice of recording inmate phone calls to provide more leads that help criminal prosecution.
Hinshaw is proud of his teaching role, not only with recruits and younger staff members. He also has taught a class, “Critical Issues in American Jails,” at Wichita State University.
Hinshaw has directly dealt with losing sheriff’s officers who were killed in the line of duty. In 1997, sheriff’s Sgt. Ken Snider, 48, died after being stabbed at a domestic disturbance call.
In 2009, a man shot and killed sheriff’s Deputy Brian Etheridge, 26. Thinking back to the killing, Hinshaw said: “Now I’m the agency head. I’m sort of that parental figure. There’s that feeling of responsibility. Is there anything else we could have done? What if? What if? What if?”
As a manager, Hinshaw said, he varies his approach, from being hands-off, to delegating, to directing, to coaching. He calls it situational leadership.
“I’m a firm believer in explaining what I’m doing,” he said. “This office of sheriff really belongs to the community. They have a right to know as much as I can tell them within the legal guidelines.”
And that was his approach in releasing the time line on the jail deputy investigation, he said.
“It’s the county’s jail,” he said. “We need to let the public know.”