Sheriff candidate questionnaires: Bob Edwards

Name: Bob Edwards

Party: Democrat

Undersheriff: Dave Phillips

Q: Why are you running for sheriff?

A: Why am I seeking re-election? Simply put, I have done a good job. I have a proven track record of taking care of tough issues. I have a proven track record of facing difficult times and making sure the office functioned. Example: when I took office in 2011, the Sheriff’s Office was in debt. We were $1.2 million dollars in the red and now we have erased that debt and currently we are a little over $3.5 million dollars in the black. I have also repaired relationships between the Sheriff’s Office and other government entities. By repairing these relationships, we have been able to conduct business without counterproductive arguing and bickering. I said I would be transparent and fair and I have been. The Sheriff’s Office has not once failed since I have been in office.

Bob Edwards intends to seek a third term as Cascade County sheriff, faces three other candidates

Q: What do you consider the top three challenges for the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office?

A: The number one challenge I see would be a deputy shortage. In 1985, we had a total of 46 sworn deputies with an average yearly call load of 8,000. Currently, we have a total of 36 sworn positions and a call load of roughly 20,000 on average. My deputies work extremely hard and do a great job for the citizens but, they are tired and need more help. I am currently working on this issue with the County Commission. The deputies deserve more help and the citizens deserve better coverage. I will fix that.

The number two challenge would be jail overcrowding. However, we do a good job of managing the population. We are in constant contact with the County Attorney’s Office and the courts to assist us with this. It should be noted that we are not the only jail in the state facing this issue. This truly is a state-wide issue. A lot of the overcrowding is due to the fact that the court system has an extremely full load of criminal cases and the State Prison is full. There is no room for sentenced inmates in the prisons thus they sit in county jails until there are beds available at the prison. Also, there is a high number of pre-trial felony inmates waiting their time in a court room. Once again, we are at the mercy of a very crowded court system.

Number three would be the challenge of finding sustainable money for manpower and programs at the Sheriff’s Office. I currently have a surplus of roughly $3.5 million dollars. A lot of folks want to know why I don’t use this money to hire. That is a great question and here is a simple answer: $360,000 is in our savings and we have just under $3 million in cash. The problem is, this $3 million dollars gets chipped at for needed capital improvement projects and it can be used by the County Commissioners if they need it for other projects in the county. This is not sustainable funding. If I did used this money to hire, there is a chance, in a couple of years the funding would be depleted, and layoffs would occur. I am not going to hire if there is a chance that I would have to let people go. It’s not right, it’s not fair and bad business practices. We need sustainable funding for manpower. I refuse to hire without having guaranteed funding.

Q: What do you believe is the role of the sheriff in Cascade County?

A: As you know the sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer of the county. My role as the sheriff is first and foremost the safety of the citizens and preserving the peace. Secondly, the sheriff needs to be a business person. The Sheriff’s Office has a $15 million budget and this budget needs to be managed. Out of the $15 million budget, I am tasked with generating over $9 million just to make budget. My team and I have been successful in accomplishing this. Overall, Cascade County is a safe place to live however, we can make it even safer by managing the budget and working with the County Commission to find the sustainable funding we need for manpower. The sheriff in Cascade County is also the coroner. A lot of people do not realize this or is often forgotten. This is also a very vital role the sheriff plays in Cascade County.

Q: If elected, what would be your initial priorities? What would you do to accomplish those goals?

A: I addressed this earlier. No matter what, we need more deputy sheriffs. Having more deputies means better county coverage, more deputies in our rural schools, and the safety of my deputies will be enhanced. Undersheriff Phillips and I are currently having this discussion with the County Commissioners. I am in a fortunate position by currently holding the Office of Sheriff so, I speak of what I am doing about this and not what “I want” to do.

Q: If elected, what would be your approach to addressing drug/alcohol addiction problems in Cascade County?

A: After several incidents of underage drinking (including a death) that greatly touched our community, we partnered with Alliance For Youth on several campaigns addressing these issues. This partnership has allowed us to reach a greater number of people and businesses to provide updated education about the current laws with prevention in mind. This partnership addressed both drug and alcohol issues.

We are also a part of the drug task force that remains very busy attempting to curb the rise in drug use, by holding the parties accountable for their actions, as well as providing citizens a group to call and report concerns in their neighborhoods.

I have recently had discussions concerning our 24/7 Alcohol Compliance Program.   Within the next few weeks, the location of the program will change, and we will have between 70 and 100 people on the program versus the average of 20 participants. This is paramount as the participants will not be sitting in jail taking up space. They will be able to work and be productive tax paying citizens as they pay their debt to society. I am not totally naïve, I know that some folks will not be successful on this program. Those are the ones that will have to go to jail. We average about a 1 percent fail rate and in my opinion that is not bad considering the numbers that have gone through the program.

I also endorse the Drug and Veterans courts with in our jurisdiction as I believe these are successful programs. It gives those that have drug and alcohol issues a chance to work and be productive citizens.

Q: What approach do you think the CCSO should take to address overcrowding at the jail? Do you believe the jail needs to be expanded or do you think there are ways to reduce the jail population through other means?

A: My team is currently working on this in several ways. The most cost-effective and possibly the most immediate solution may be the 24/7 program as I mentioned above. Although the program has been in place for the past 5 years, a movement of its locations could change it dramatically which, has the potential to lower the population.

Also, several government entities voiced concerns about the participants safety while walking to and from the Detention Center, as well as some ideas about the hours of operation.

Based on those concerns, we proposed moving this program to a central location within downtown while changing in hours. When this proposal was made to a group of judges within the jurisdiction we received overwhelming support. We also received some unsolicited numbers (3.5 times the current numbers) that the judges thought they would place on the program once the location move was completed. These numbers would provide an immediate, although small relief to the population in the jail by providing an alternative to incarceration.

This is just one example of how my office continues to work with other agencies and offices within our jurisdiction. My team has daily conversations with the courts and attorney’s offices attempting to address the current population within the jail.

A quick note about a jail expansion, it’s not as easy as just building new cells. Based on the current building and population we would need several other additions. One expensive addition is a new kitchen or expansion of the current kitchen, all of which drastically changes the overall costs. We will continue to manage the population. The citizens just finished paying a 20-year bond and I do not plan on asking for any new money to build on to the Detention Center.

Q: What role do you think CCSO and law enforcement should play in crime prevention and how would you accomplish that?

A: One of the ways we do this currently is the CRIMESTOPPERS program. In partnership with the Great Falls Police Department we have launched a new CRIMESTOPPERS reporting system.

CRIMESTOPPERS is a great program that was started in 1985 and by last published numbers in 2004 had recovered $1,617,283 worth of stolen property. Recovered a street value of over $450,000 of narcotics. Seized almost $50,000 in cash. As well as solved over $165,000 in vandalism cases. Clearing 844 felony cases and 286 misdemeanor cases. I understand these numbers are 13 years old but overall this is a great program within our community.

We also have a STYLE Program (Sheriff’s Teaching Youth Lawful Education) within the schools in the county. Having deputies assigned to the area not only allows a positive change in the relationship these children have with the deputies. It also allows the deputies to learn more about the kids and what is going on in the area they serve.

Once built, these relationships can be long-lasting and very beneficial to not only the kids as they grow up, but to the overall protection of the area in which they reside.

Q: How do you think the CCSO can improve community relations? In your opinion, how can the community help law enforcement keep the peace, (i.e. neighborhood watch, calling in tips vs. vigilante justice)?

A: As I have always said, “We are few and with the citizens, we are many.” Overall, I do not believe that community relations are lacking. That being stated, we can always improve relations. Programs such as Crimestoppers, Neighborhood Watch, are in place and work well. But one thing I want to do, as soon as my new deputies are trained, is start a Sheriff’s Citizens Academy. This is something that I have always wanted to do and will accomplish. I am a believer that when law enforcement interacts with its citizens in an educating manner, it will break down any barriers that may exist on either side and a stronger team will take shape.

Over a year ago, I started gathering information on various Sheriff’s Citizens Academy’s throughout Montana and our nation and as soon as we are up to speed with training our new deputies, we will launch this program. (It will take manpower to accomplish). I did a Facebook survey regarding citizen interest on attending a citizens academy on our Sheriff’s Office page and the response was positive and an overwhelming yes! This academy will happen.

Q: Since a major responsibility of the sheriff is the budget, how will you be a good steward of the taxpayer’s money?

A: I said 8 years ago that I would be a good steward of taxpayer money and I have been. It is glaringly obvious.

My past 7 years as Sheriff shows that under my direction, we have moved from the red, well into the black. I can’t take all the credit. The staff I have in place are always working towards the betterment of our building, staff, and services we provide to the citizens. Almost daily we come up with and implement cost saving ideas.

The budget issue really is more than the money; it’s about restoring relationships with our partners. Embracing the working relationship with the County Commissioners, Montana Department of Corrections, the courts, and all our partners on the federal level. This has helped us thrive.

My office is one of the very few within county government that has a revenue source (Detention Center) to assist with operation cost allowing us to move from the red to the black and we have done and will continue to move forward.

Finally, let me add, not once during my tenure, have I asked the citizens of Cascade County to assist us financially, and for this I’m very proud. We live within our means.

Q: What do you believe is the appropriate staffing level of the CCSO to meet the needs of Cascade County? What resources would you need to make changes?

A: Staffing levels within the Sheriff’s Office has been an ongoing issue since I was hired. The overall numbers of deputies dropped prior to me becoming a member of the office and since that time we had perpetually been short deputies. One reason is that past sheriff’s would not fill openings as a means of cost savings. One of the hardest things to get back once cut, is staff.

In January, we had a record hiring of seven deputies to fill openings within our ranks. These seven new deputies filling all our open spots bring us to full staffing. But prior to their graduation from the Law Enforcement Academy at the end of March, a deputy accepted a position with another agency, so we are back to being one deputy short. That position should be filled in the very near future.

Members of the public would say “just hire” a new deputy but in reality, hiring a deputy is a yearlong process. The seven deputies we hired in January started the process in July or August of 2017 when the application process started. These 7 new deputies, depending on their success in training will be ready to cover the needs of our community on their own in July.

Although we have received two new positions over the past several years (thanks to the County Commissioners), these positions address particular areas needing specialized training. These positions have assisted in the overall needs of the office but, there is more to be done.

So, this conversation is not only about staffing levels, but forward thinking enough to have the trained people to keep the office moving forward. I’m working on this issue and hope to have a solution within the next month.

Having addressed the deputies on the street that everyone sees, we can’t forget the entire staff working tirelessly within our facility 24 hours a day, every day. Our detention staff does an amazing job, but they aren’t without staffing requirements. Although the training program for detention officers is not a lengthy as the one for deputies they are still highly trained, prior to being independently responsible for a housing unit. We have continued openings within our detention facility, that we are filling when appropriate candidates are found.

We also have civilian staff, who are responsible for all our records, files, permits, warrants and all other required paperwork movement within my office. We could definitely use several more of these positions to assist the detective division as well as other areas within my office to help with work flow. That being stated, we have found help for the records division in the form of volunteers, but this is not enough.

The bottom line is the fact that we need sustainable funding to change staffing levels. But as I addressed while speaking about the budget, I don’t want to ask the citizens for more money as I feel we are taxed enough already.

I’ve taken on this responsibility as your Sheriff and will continue to look for, address, and apply for all available funding sources I can, to help my office with our staffing levels.

Q: How should the CCSO work with other agencies such as the Great Falls Police Department?

A: Hand in hand of course. Overall, we have the same goals, and that is to provide the citizens service they expect carried out in a professional manner.

As Sheriff, I have worked very closely with Chief Bowen on several issues. We have worked together on several projects for the overall betterment of the services we provide. The latest and one of the largest projects would be our new law enforcement software system. This system was a collaboration between the city and the county that not only provided us a great product but also saved all the agencies and taxpayers money in the long run. Only by working together were we able to accomplish this very large undertaking.

More examples include an agreement regarding a joint dispatch center and partnering in our local drug task force. We also work well together on joint investigations such as homicides. We communicate well, and we get the job done.

During day-to-day operations my deputies work very well with members of the other agencies within our jurisdiction to include the federal law enforcement. We are all here to assist each other when needed and we do so on a very regular basis. We may wear different uniforms, but we are one big law enforcement family.

Q: How do you think CCSO can address mental health issues related to crime and those in the criminal justice system?

A: This is a huge issue that has always lacked funding for those who really need assistance the most. During my career I have observed a large number of people enter the jail that really needed assistance prior to committing any crime. Prevention, I believe is the key, and that is why I have embraced the Crisis Intervention Team program fully. I was instrumental in renewing this program in Cascade County. This program is designed to help law enforcement identify those in crisis and find alternatives to jail, such as going to the hospital or speaking with the Crisis Response Team.

I have made the commitment to have my staff trained. I have also committed to have my staff become instructors, and host training that is open to any law enforcement agency willing to attend. Once again, this is a state-wide issue.

Although this has been a budgetary commitment, I saw this as a true need for our community. I have directed my training division to ensure all sworn and detention staff receive this training. This is invaluable training and will help us identify those individuals in crisis and needing assistance prior to them committing an act that could send them to jail or prison.

Unfortunately, a lot of people in crisis end up in the criminal justice system prior to getting the help they deserve. I will always back and find assistance for programs that will help those with mental illness. I have had family members with mental illness and I understand the importance of solid, funded programs to assist them.

Q: Any additional comments on your plans if elected (but please be concise)?

A: When I am re-elected, I will continue to be transparent, fair, and accountable. I will continue to strengthen relationships with our partners. I will build new relationships. I will continue to be fiscally responsible. I have a proven track record of getting things done. I will continue to face issues head on and work with our partners to solve problems like I have always done. My main goal is, and always has been, the enhancement of public safety. I am working hard as your Sheriff and plan on being the Sheriff you expect me to be.