GREENFIELD — The support of local law enforcement can have significant sway in the race for county prosecutor.
Incumbent Michael Griffin, who is running for a second term, and challenger Brent Eaton, a private defense attorney, both tout a good working relationship with law enforcement officers and say they expect backing from them at the polls on Tuesday.
Griffin said he has successfully addressed complaints local officers had with the previous administration, and he believes the majority of officers are supporting him.
“We received various requests as part of the first campaign and responded to all of them,” Griffin said.
He added that he has taken steps to strengthen relationships between his office and the county’s law enforcement agencies. For example, he instituted mandatory ride-alongs with officers for his deputy prosecutors so the staff will have a better understanding of what an officer’s job entails.
Eaton, a former deputy prosecutor, said if he is elected, he will have an open-door policy with officers, and their views will always be welcome. He added that as part of an effort to improve communication, he will provide police with quarterly updates on upcoming law changes so they are equipped to do their jobs and know where to come with questions.
Eaton said because he grew up in Hancock County, he knows many local officers personally, and if he is elected, he will treat them with respect, even in cases when officers disagree with his decisions.
“They feel I’m somebody they can work with,” he said. “My personality, I hope it to be more of a consensus-builder on things.”
Throughout his campaign, Griffin has touted the endorsement of the chiefs of three departments – Fortville, Wilkinson and Shirley.
The leaders of the county’s biggest departments, the Hancock County sheriff’s Department and the Greenfield Police Department, have remained mum on which candidate they support.
Eaton said he has never found it appropriate to ask for formal endorsements because it can complicate work on future criminal cases.
If a law enforcement officer supports Eaton, that could create a rocky relationship throughout the remainder of the incumbent’s term, Eaton cited as an example.
Fortville Police Chief Bill Knauer met with both candidates as they began their campaigns and said he is endorsing Griffin based on their working relationship since Knauer came to Fortville to take over the small police department last year.
Knauer said Griffin takes a hands-on approach to his work as a prosecutor and has been quick to respond to officers’ needs.
“He’s quick to get us answers,” Knauer said. “That’s a huge thing because we operate … under laws that requires us to act within certain timeframes … to not violate people’s rights. It’s crucial if we reach out to that office that we get a response in a timely manner.”
Knauer said he also met and had a positive conversation in recent weeks with Eaton.
Knauer said Hancock County will be in good hands regardless of which candidate triumphs Tuesday, but he doesn’t see the need for a change.
“I think they would probably both be very good prosecutors, but … we’ve had an excellent working relationship with the current administration there,” he said.
That includes Griffin’s staff, which Knauer said he would like to see kept in place.
Griffin’s staff has also gotten kudos from some of Eaton’s supporters, namely those who suggest the bulk of the work is being done by Griffin’s chief deputy, Tami Napier, an experienced prosecutor who has taken the lead on high-profile cases, including a murder trial, since Griffin took office.
Dan Devoy, a field officer with Hancock County Community Corrections, is supporting Eaton. He said he looks to Eaton to be a more hands-on prosecutor than he believes Griffin has been, someone who will delegate tasks as necessary but also take a main role in prosecuting cases.
“You can delegate jobs, but you can’t delegate authority,” he said.
He added, “I believe that Ms. Napier has shown her worth.”
Devoy has intimate experience with the prosecutor’s office, having worked there as the prosecutor’s investigator under former Prosecutor Terry Snow from 2001-2003.
Devoy said that experience taught him how a prosecutor’s office should be run, with the officeholder taking on a regular caseload.
Devoy said Eaton demonstrated a good work ethic as a deputy prosecutor under Larry Gossett, who succeeded Snow, and Devoy expects Eaton will maintain a regular presence in the courtroom if he is elected.
“Brent Eaton, you’re gonna see him more than you’ll ever see Michael Griffin,” he said.
Eaton has run his campaign on what he considers a lack of sufficient courtroom experience for Griffin, who he points out has never tried a case before a jury in an Indiana court.
Griffin has countered that all cases are prepared as though they are going to go to trial, and much of the work leading up to that point occurs in the office, not the courtroom.
Griffin said he is confident the work he has done to repair the office’s relationship with law enforcement has made a difference over the past 3½ years.
Re-establishing the investigator position has not only improved communication with officers, Griffin said, but lightened the burden on police after cases are filed. Tasks that once fell to officers now are completed by Griffin’s investigator, who does work finding additional records needed for trial, tracking down witnesses, etc.
Griffin said he has also instructed his staff to file cases promptly after completed reports are received from law enforcement. A reported lag in efficiently moving paperwork through the court system cost Griffin’s predecessor, Dean Dobbins, votes in the 2010 election.
Eaton also ran that year. He placed second to Griffin in the three-way race.
Griffin said while he believes the majority of law enforcement supports his office, he admitted there was some division based on a controversial decision he made in a 2013 case.
A Greenfield woman killed her husband after telling police she believed he was dangerous. Officers were en route to the man’s house when the woman shot him. During questioning, she said she believed he would have opened fire on responding officers.
Griffin said the woman’s actions saved lives and opted not to file charges, a decision some investigators criticized.
“That seemed to divide officers a bit,” Griffin said. “I don’t know how weighty that consideration is.”
It’s a case that Eaton has criticized, not because of Griffin’s decision not to file charges but because of what he says he observed about the way officers were treated as Griffin debated whether to pursue the case.
When explaining his decision not to prosecute the woman, Griffin said investigating officers were unaware of a law prohibiting prosecution for those who commit violence in defense of others.
Eaton criticized Griffin for publicly calling out officers for being uninformed.
“You can disagree without being disagreeable,” he said. “What positive do you accomplish by doing that? That is not going to create an atmosphere of positive communication.”
Criticism throughout the campaign has gone both ways.
Throughout his campaign, Griffin has criticized Eaton for practicing law mainly outside Hancock County.
Eaton said that move was strategic. While he is qualified to serve as a public defender here, Eaton said he purposely never registered because he didn’t want to defend criminals in Hancock County; he wanted to prosecute them.
He said he also wanted to maintain a good relationship with law enforcement, which might have been put at risk had he defended the very people officers sought to prosecute.
Eaton said he doesn’t expect to make sweeping changes to the way officers do business with the prosecutor’s office if he is elected, but he believes a few tweaks could be beneficial.
For example, he said he will be more considerate of officers’ schedules as their cases make their way through the court system.
Eaton said he’s heard complaints from third-shift officers who have been called to court to testify early in the morning only to learn once they arrive that a trial has been canceled or postponed.
Eaton said the scenario is sometimes unavoidable, but he would make an effort to keep officers better informed of changes.
“I think little structural things like that could make a big difference,” he said.
Griffin said the relationship between the prosecutor’s office and law enforcement has significantly improved during his tenure, and he expects to continue in a positive direction if re-elected.
“I’ve maintained a pretty open door,” he said. “Those who invested in that open door have obtained open access and very good results.”