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Hinshaw disputes there is culture of abuse at Sedgwick County jail

Sheriff Robert Hinshaw said Tuesday night that he disagreed with an allegation that a culture of abuse exists at the Sedgwick County Jail.

Hinshaw’s comment came at a candidate forum sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness at the Breakthrough Club, a Wichita nonprofit that helps the severely mentally ill achieve independence. Hinshaw and his opponent in the Aug. 7 GOP primary, Wichita police Capt. Jeff Easter, took questions at the forum, attended by about 50 people.

Hinshaw was responding to a question posed by Barbara Andres, executive director of Episcopal Social Services and the Breakthrough Club, about recent allegations of abuse at the jail and how the candidates would hold the staff accountable.

Later, Andres clarified that she was referring to allegations that some jail staff made fun of mentally ill inmates, and to the case of a jail deputy recently charged with sexually assaulting and abusing inmates.

The allegation that some jail deputies made fun of the mentally ill, allegedly with the knowledge or backing of top sheriff’s staff, is the subject of a lawsuit in federal court over the 2008 beating of a mentally ill inmate, Edgar Richard Jr., by a deputy who pleaded no contest to reckless aggravated battery.

“I dispute that there is a culture of abuse,” Hinshaw said in response to Andres’ question. “That is an allegation by an attorney … suing … for a lot of money.” Later, Hinshaw clarified that he was referring to the lawsuit involving Richard.

Hinshaw, who is seeking a second term after being elected in 2008, said he stresses ethics throughout the Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail. He said his office investigates allegations against its staff, and sometimes that results in discipline or criminal charges. “All my personnel know there are repercussions” for improper or illegal behavior, Hinshaw said.

It’s important to hold people accountable, he said, because “when a cop does something wrong, it sort of lowers your trust in us, and it should,” he told the audience.

He said he has tried to make the Sheriff’s Office “as transparent and as open as possible.”

Hinshaw noted he was recognized in 2010 by the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for his community service.

Responding to the same question, Easter said staff have to be held accountable and be treated fairly as well. Easter, who has 23 years with the Wichita Police Department and currently oversees the Patrol North bureau, said the Police Department at one time had a culture that allowed for some bad behavior, but that it has changed, so that officers recognize improper actions by fellow officers and report it.

On another issue involving the jail, Easter and Hinshaw seemed to disagree about how they would handle setting up a separate area to more effectively treat mentally ill inmates.

Easter questioned why the mentally ill couldn’t be served separately now.

Hinshaw said he has long advocated for a separate jail pod to help the mentally ill but said it would take much more money, particularly for increased staffing by mental health professionals. Hinshaw said the funding hasn’t been available in these tough budget times.

The winner of the GOP sheriff’s primary will face Democrat Jefrey Weinman, who didn’t attend Tuesday’s forum.

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