This week’s Campbell Conversation is with the two candidates running for Onondaga County sheriff, Democrat Toby Shelley and Republican Gene Conway. Shelley has had a long career with the Air Force and the National Guard and worked in the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department for 17 years. He runs a family farm and an excavation business in Otisco. Conway is the DeWitt police chief. He worked in the Sheriff’s Department for 24 years and retired as captain of criminal investigations.
Grant Reeher (GR): Toby Shelley, what are the most important changes you would make in how the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department runs?
Toby Shelly (TS): There is a lot of work to be done, from saving Air One, trying to get more deputies for patrol and in the jail. One of the first changes we will make is what we have been talking about for four years: bringing in some unnecessary take-home cars to fund Air One and to fill some of those positions. It is important to make our schools safer. Transitioning the current four deputies that are in our schools and filling those with retired police officers. At $20 an hour, we can get 17 for the price of four, so those are some of the immediate things that we could look to do.
GR: Gene Conway, are there other kinds of changes you would want to make?
Gene Conway (GC): I would bring my leadership skills of the last 12 years as the police chief of the town of DeWitt, and I also worked for the village of East Syracuse as an acting chief back in 2007. My experience is both varied and deep. Coming to the Sheriff’s Department, the message is clear: I’ll be providing the best possible police services at the lowest possible cost in the most professional manner possible.
GR: Do you think the sheriff’s office is well managed?
GC: I’m not going to make any comments on the present sheriff’s administration. I’m going to be coming into office on Jan. 1st and I’m going to be bringing a fresh perspective on management, and that includes obviously the most efficient use of taxpayer’s money.
GR: Mr. Shelley, do you think the sheriff’s office is well managed?
TS: There are things we can learn from Sheriff (Kevin E.) Walsh. He has done some good things, but it is time for positive change. And myself, and the team I’m going to surround myself with, is going to bring that positive change.
GR: Mr. Shelley, there has been concern with the treatment of inmates in the Onondaga County Justice Center, including deaths that have been found to be caused by mistreatment. Do you have specific plans for addressing that?
TS: I’ve read the county’s investigation, and I’ve read the state’s investigation. We have to bring a level of fairness and accountability and transparency into the Justice Center and ensure that the policies are properly followed and the training is being properly done to prevent those things. I’ve read about the Oversight Committee, that just came out of the County (Legislature). I have read that, and I don’t fear that. However, I would not turn over the power of the office of the sheriff to the County (Legislature).
GR: Mr. Conway, what’s your view on that oversight?
GC: Well, my purpose as sheriff in overseeing the jail is two-fold, and that is to ensure the safety of those inmates who are in the Justice Center as well as ensuring the safety of those men and women who are working in the Justice Center. Just this week, there is a report that the Justice Center is over-crowded, and it’ll be my purpose obviously to see what we can do to bring those numbers down. Part of the situation is the types of people that are being brought into the Justice Center, specifically people who suffer from mental illness. That is absolutely the last place that those people should be, and I think just building more floors and building more units to accommodate the over-crowding to include mental illness is really not the answer.
GR: Mr. Shelley, does it matter to how you are going to approach this job that you are running for sheriff as a Democrat? What should voters take from that basic political fact?
TS: Partisan politics has actually hurt our country, and they divide our people. I’m not sure that putting a label on Democrats or Republicans is a right thing to say or do. I think it is interesting that the Sheriff’s Department is 220 years old, and we’ve had one Democratic sheriff in those 220 years. As a Democrat, I’d bring the same things I have been talking about all along. It’s not about being a Democrat; it’s about being an American first.
GR: Mr. Conway, what does it mean that you are a Republican running for this position?
GC: It means I share the values of the Republican Party obviously, but I think most importantly, when people look at the candidates, you are looking at a candidate who is going to be responsible for managing an $83 million budget within the Sheriff’s Department. That’s a tremendous responsibility, it’s taxpayer money, and I think it’s most important that the most qualified person be in charge of that operation.
GR: The working relationship between law enforcement agencies in this county has been the subject of concerns in recent years. There have been apparent conflicts over turf, the conduct of investigations and conflicts among some of the leadership of the criminal justice organizations and law enforcement organizations. How would you approach those relationships to get the most effective law enforcement in the county?
TS: Four years ago when I ran for sheriff, I talked about cooperation and collaboration amongst other agencies. Now I continue to talk about it because it’s the right thing to do. I’ve had extensive conversations with [Syracuse Police] Chief Frank Fowler on how we could work together. We have to, because I get asked about illegal guns coming into the community, about the heroin epidemic. A lot of our guns come from Ohio and Virginia — that’s bigger than Onondaga County. It’s something we need to work on. Heroin’s a national issue, so of course we have to work together.
GC: Actually, I think among law enforcement agencies here in this county we work extremely well together. I’m a part of a county police chiefs’ organization that meets once a month. If anything, we probably don’t do enough to make the public aware of how closely we work with each other. One example: Just a few months ago, I, along with the Manlius police chief, decided to share a piece of equipment, which will reduce overtime cost and will reduce the cost of both municipalities, just by sitting down and deciding how we could continue to provide the level of service that we do without increasing the burden to the taxpayer.
GR: Mr. Shelley, Mr. Conway suggested that the level of cooperation in the area is pretty good. But at least when you are reading media reports, it is not the conclusion that you immediately come to. The district attorney is apparently not talking to the (Syracuse) police chief. There are other stories about lack of cooperation at different levels, and in investigations. Can the sheriff act as a mediator to try to fix this?
TS: A reason why I think the sheriff could make a difference is the sheriff is the only elected law enforcement official in our country. He doesn’t work for a mayor; he doesn’t work for a governor or town supervisor or anything like that. He works for the people. And for that reason, I think he is in a unique position to make that collaboration and cooperation happen.
GR: Mr. Conway, I was a little bit surprised to hear you describe the situation as being one that sounds so robust in terms of cooperation.
GC: There are 18 police agencies in this county. In the last few weeks, Chief Fowler called me to see if (the Syracuse police) could use the police range of the DeWitt Police Department, which of course I said he could. These are things that go on on a daily basis. We meet, like I said, on a regular basis. We are all in the same situation as leaders in a municipality. We are forced to try to squeeze out the most amount of services that we can, either with the same or reduced budget every year.
GR: Are there certain kinds of criminal activity in the county that have not been getting as much attention as they might deserve, and that you would put more emphasis on?
GC: Right now, we face a growing problem with the drug habit in this community, which is obviously heroin. Heroin is much more addictive, and obviously we are seeing more people that are actually dying from it. Just yesterday, I was told by a constituent in the town of DeWitt that he had his house broken into in the middle of the day. There is no doubt in my mind that in this community, probably at least 95 percent of the crime is being committed as a result of a drug habit.
TS: The question of drugs and poverty and crime are all intertwined, and it’s a problem throughout the country. However, what you see in Onondaga County, index crimes — robberies and burglaries — have been on a decline since the ’80s. What you see are quality-of-life crimes on the rise: car break-ins, things like that. Some of those things I think we can work on. The stuff that I have been talking about is working with communities, connect with those communities and help work out those quality-of-life crimes.
GR: What will be your orientation toward enforcement of the SAFE Act? Some sheriffs have basically said they are not going to enforce it.
TS: Discretion is implied within the law. You wouldn’t write every person a speeding ticket for speeding, for example. The number of bullets in your magazine, you know if you forgot to count one day, we might use that discretion and say, no were not going to arrest you. We find you on that same day on school grounds threatening a teacher, we might count your bullets that day. Until the (State) Legislature revises it, however they are going to work that out, it’s incumbent upon the sheriff to enforce the law, with discretion.
GC: Just last week, I asked a command-level person in the state police where they were with enforcing certain parts of that law. And he still does not know. So we are more than a year into this law, and the state police still don’t know how they are going to enforce (it). We face a lot more serious issues in this community, whether it is crime or safety, people in their homes, people at work and people on the highways. Those are going to be my priorities, and until we get those things well in hand, then enforcing confusing principles under the SAFE Act will not be my priority.
GR: Mr. Conway, in your campaign you’ve said that you want to bring more professionalism to the force. What specifically do you mean by that?
GC: I’m proud of what’s been done in the town of DeWitt. It is obviously not just a result of my efforts, but in the town of DeWitt we do many things that connect us with the community. As a result, we have community support, which I think is paramount, because in law enforcement we cannot do that on our own. We need community involvement. Representatives of law enforcement all have an obligation to put our best foot forward. In doing that, I strongly feel that we will get that kind of community support.
GR: Mr. Shelley, you’ve emphasized the importance of ties with the community. What specifically do you mean by that, in terms of law enforcement?
TS: We definitely need to connect with communities. We can connect with the youth. I’m looking at a cops-for-kids type of program, whether that is playing basketball or something else. We could also push community policing. Back when I came in and Gene came in, we didn’t have cellphones. We all had to go out of the car, you had to talk to the public. You knew the businesses, you knew people in the area and we have lost sight of some of that. Between the cellphones and computers, you really don’t have to get out of your car anymore, and you need to. We should be stopping at the town board meetings and make that connection again. It has been lost and it is important to have that.
Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.