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County's drug problem a key issue in sheriff race

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GREENFIELD — Both Republican candidates for sheriff point to drugs as the driving force behind crimes committed in Hancock County, but they are sharply divided on the best means of addressing the problem.

How each would combat the drug problem in Hancock County if elected has become a key issue in the race for the county’s top law enforcement seat.

Sheriff Mike Shepherd, who is running for his second term, says the department’s first priority needs to be maintaining sufficient manpower in the patrol division, which he considers the county’s first line of defense. Challenger Donnie Munden, a lieutenant and shift commander on the sheriff’s department, points to the need for a drug task force and is calling for a reallocation of resources.

The county’s last drug task force disbanded in 2010 after a brief run under former Sheriff Bud Gray, who took office in 2007. Task force operations were suspended indefinitely after the lead detective admitted to dipping into the drug-buy fund to pay personal expenses.

Shepherd said when he took office in 2011, it would have been unreasonable to re-establish a task force that had previously operated with lax guidelines and little oversight. He remains unconvinced that developing an entire task force is in the county’s best interest and would instead prefer to take the step of assigning a single officer to investigate drug cases.

Munden contends that without dedicating a significant number of officers to fighting drugs, the department is not doing all it can to curb criminal activity. He proposes networking with neighboring agencies, which would be called upon to provide an officer to the team.

The candidates agree that manpower has been an issue at the department for years, with requests for funding for additional staff often being denied because of budget concerns. Shepherd says the department is nearing an adequate level of staffing on the road, and after the latest round of new hires finishes training, he will consider moving an officer from patrol to the detective division.

“His main job, obviously, would be working any drug cases,” Shepherd said. “Obviously, any agency that has a case that wants to work with him, that’s fine.”

That move could happen as early as the end of the year, Shepherd said.

In terms of a timeline, Munden has made a bold promise to voters – that he will have a countywide drug task force up and running on his first day in office if he is elected. He said he has already laid the groundwork by reaching out to the county’s law enforcement department heads.

“I’m not trying to get the cart before the horse,” Munden said. “They all realize that there’s a big drug problem with the amount of overdoses we’ve had, and they’re willing to allocate resources … to help with this multi-agency drug task force.”

Munden said he envisions providing two sheriff’s deputies to the team and recruiting at least four officers from neighboring agencies.

“What I’m looking for is uniformity,” Munden said. “That way, the task force would be trained as a team. They know what everybody’s abilities and limitations are.”

Shepherd said having a team assembled so quickly is unrealistic, and moving officers off patrol duty isn’t the best use of resources.

“I don’t think a drug task force is the best thing,” he said. “Any time I put somebody in investigations or someplace else, … that shortens the road by that person. I would rather have more officers here, working the road, to be out there for other calls, protecting the people here in the county.”

Because a significant number of drug cases prosecuted here have ties to Marion County, Shepherd said he also fears a task force’s work could take the focus off fighting local crime.

“They’re not really doing Hancock County any good if they’re working outside the county,” he said.

Munden said local law enforcement cannot ignore the fact that a number of Marion County’s criminals end up committing crimes here.

In most cases, those crimes are burglaries and thefts aimed at funding a drug habit. But in other cases, the outcome is more sinister. Munden said he has been tracking Marion County’s drug-related homicides and fears how close some have come to the county line.

“There were two or three that were within a stone’s throw of Hancock County soil,” he said.

Shepherd said if a local officer tracks a drug investigation to another county, the information should be handed off to the appropriate authorities there.

Shepherd said he would ask his drug investigator to develop confidential informants. Those connections are typically made after someone is arrested on a minor drug charge, and detectives see potential to identify a higher-level dealer.

“You can basically hold charges over their head; then if they don’t cooperate, you can basically file charges,” he said.

Shepherd said the deputies are currently providing quality service to the citizens, and response times have improved since there are more officers on patrol.

Munden insists the department could be doing more.

“We can have good response times, but how about if we don’t need those response times because the drug dealers are in jail instead of out committing crimes?” he said.

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