Voters in Lewis and Clark County will choose the first leader of the county’s newly consolidated sheriff and coroner’s offices in next month’s election. The two longtime law enforcement officers running for the position have different views on how to address many of the county’s issues going forward.
Incumbent Sheriff Leo Dutton, a Democrat, has worked with the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office for more than 30 years. He started his career as a reserve deputy and eventually rose through the ranks to undersheriff. He was appointed sheriff in 2008.
Dutton said he decided to run for another term while recovering from a heart attack last year. He said he realized there were still things he wanted to accomplish as sheriff.
“It was that commitment after I woke up of thinking of everything I didn’t do versus, ‘Hey, there’s life left.’ And I felt a mission about what I’m supposed to do. It is my passion, it is my purpose.”
Jay Nelson, a Republican, is a Montana Highway Patrol sergeant, a 20-year veteran with the agency. He has served on assignments like the governor’s protection detail, the Deadly Encounters Team and the Special Response Team.
Nelson said he had talked for years with his father, longtime county coroner Mickey Nelson, about running for office.
“I said, ‘This is the time, everything is aligned,’” he said. “I had my 20 years with the Highway Patrol, and it was time to bring those experiences to the deputies at the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office, the detention officers, and move us into the next generation.”
Both men say they’re concerned about rising crime rates in the county, particularly for drug-related offenses. According to statistics from the Montana Board of Crime Control’s online dashboard, from January to November 2017, LCSO handled 1030 so-called “Group A offenses,” including crimes like murder, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, auto theft and drug offenses. That was slightly lower than the number reported in 2016, 2015 and 2014, but significantly higher than the 807 reported in 2009.
Nelson said he wants to focus on increasing enforcement. He wants to reevaluate how the department is using its employees, to see if they can step up their response using their existing budget.
“We’ve got to really examine the number of calls, the number of deputies we have,” he said. “One of the examples I said is looking within to the leadership of the sheriff’s office. Maybe some of those people that aren’t currently in uniform in a marked car need to change around, so that we can put more deputies out on the road that already exist within the agency.”
Dutton argues more enforcement alone won’t be enough to address the drug issue. He said he wants to maintain partnerships with other agencies, as well as with groups that provide mental health and drug treatment services.
“We have to get to the genesis of this,” he said. “We would fill up this new jail that we’re going to build on the first day if we don’t have other components that help us realize that we have to reduce the demand. I’m telling you now that just focusing entirely on enforcement has got us to where we’re at now.”
Nelson says he wants to see more data before he’s convinced the county’s new pretrial services program is a good solution to overcrowding at the jail. The program evaluates people when they are arrested to give judges a better idea of whether they can be safely released before their trial.
“If it’s working, if it’s within budget, then let’s go for it 100 miles an hour,” Nelson said. “But if it’s not working, we either have to scale it back to where it will work, or we have to get rid of it.”
He said he is particularly concerned about the fact that some people in the pretrial program are given prepaid cellphones, so that pretrial officers are able to send them text message reminders to make their court appearances.
“I’m all about making sure people aren’t in jail if they don’t need to be in jail,” he said. “However, we have to make sure the community’s safe. We have to make sure that we’re not benefiting people that do crimes by handing out cellphones.”
Dutton said it’s still early to demonstrate clear results from the pretrial program, but he believes there have already been positive changes.
“What it has cut down on is the failure to appear warrants, because they are showing up, they are taking responsibility,” he said.
He also noted that the money to pay for those phones is currently coming from a grant, not from the regular county budget. The program is administered by county Criminal Justice Services, not by the sheriff’s office.
“What those cellphones are doing is helping us get those people out of jail – roughly $35 a month compared to $120 dollars a day that we have someone on your dime in there, doing what? Sitting there waiting for trial,” Dutton said.
Kellie McBride, Lewis and Clark County’s director of restorative justice and court systems, said 207 people are currently in the pretrial program. She said 64 have received cellphones, and that those people did not have cellphones of their own.
The Lewis and Clark County Commission voted last year to consolidate the sheriff and coroner’s offices. The consolidation will take effect Jan. 1, when either Dutton or Nelson begins his four-year term.
Dutton said he and several of his command staff and deputies have already gone through training to serve as deputy coroners once the offices are combined. He said they understand the importance of the coroner’s role in working with families that have lost loved ones, and that they take seriously the fact that they should respond as coroners in those situations, and not as law enforcement officers.
“I think when we combine, you’re not going to notice any difference,” he said. “The difference that you’ll notice, maybe in the outlying areas, is that you don’t have to wait as long for a coroner.”
Nelson said he’s still not sure deputies serving as deputy coroners can do that job as well as a dedicated coroner could. He said he wants to see the sheriff and coroner’s offices remain largely separate from each other once the consolidation takes effect.
“As the county, we should put the right people with the right frame of mind, that aren’t worried about going to the next call, that are worried about giving that family everything they need in their darkest hour,” he said.
Nelson also responded to an incident in 2011, when he was disciplined by the Highway Patrol over allegations he had improperly claimed overtime hours. According to an article in the Billings Gazette, he was suspended for one week without pay.
Nelson said he was doing MHP work while at a second job during the hours he claimed, and that three supervisors had approved what he was doing before it became an issue. He also said that was the only time he faced disciplinary action at MHP.
“People will either define you, defeat you or make you better, and I’ve been made better by this,” he said. “If you’re telling me it’s wrong to do work and get paid for it, I’m completely flabbergasted.”
Dutton admitted there have been cases where his employees have been arrested. In two cases – one assault and one DUI charge – he said the officers went through the courts and the internal review process and were eventually terminated. He also said his office had been sued multiple times, and settled several of those cases. But he said the office has a culture of accountability, and that those issues are addressed in a way that’s in line with LCSO’s core values.
“I’ve been sued many times for the jail, but not successfully,” said Dutton. “Yes, there’s been some settled out of court, but I’ve not had ones been settled for losing. The same way with the civil division: I’ve been sued for civil issues, but not one successful, because we have leadership.”
Nelson said he’s not concerned about an adjustment coming into the sheriff’s position from outside the department. He said he hopes voters will give him the opportunity to bring a new perspective to the office.
“I have experience all over the state and all over the country: I’ve taught everywhere across the country, I’ve been to training across the country, I can bring those assets together and give a new view,” he said. “I’m very familiar with the sheriff’s office and what happens there, and I can guarantee you it’s going to be a fresh breath of air to be able to bring this experience to the voters.”
Dutton said he understands the county is facing challenges, but that he believes his experience makes him the best person to deal with those challenges over the next four years.
“I’ve done this for ten years,” he said. “I have a team to come in and make that work. I have the wisdom, I have the experience, I have the understanding, all of those things. I know how to do the job, and I have the humility to admit that I can get better at the job when I need to. That’s why I want to continue to be your sheriff. I’m not perfect, but I have a great team.”
Election Day is Nov. 6. More than 27,300 absentee ballots have already been mailed out to voters across Lewis and Clark County.
-Reported by Jonathon Ambarian/MTN News