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Sheriff hopefuls look at ways to reach out

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GREENFIELD — Both Republican candidates for Hancock County sheriff have plans for ways to connect to the community they will serve if they’re elected.

The incumbent, Sheriff Mike Shepherd, said he has worked hard over the past three years in office to improve the department’s image in the eyes of the public. If he is re-elected, he said he plans to continue improving community relationships by making officers more approachable to citizens.

Last year, Shepherd started the department’s first citizen’s academy, which invites members of the public into the department for a behind-the-scenes look at law enforcement.

Participants responded positively in 2013, noting in their evaluations of the program that they learned a lot about the work officers must do on a daily basis, Shepherd said.

“It was really a great success last year,” Shepherd said. “People see us as people at that point.”

The second citizen’s academy is ongoing now. Shepherd said during the academy’s first week, the class ran overtime during a tour of department facilities. He was pleased that when he offered to cut the tour short, no one took him up on it.

“Nobody wanted to leave,” he said. “They were enjoying the jail tour.”

Challenger Donnie Munden agreed that it is the department head’s responsibility to reach out to members of the public and allow citizens to connect with officers on a more personal level than their jobs sometimes allow.

Part of Munden’s campaign platform is his promise to expand two programs – and start a third – that would accomplish those goals.

Munden said he would like to see officers connect with citizens of all ages.

Munden currently serves as post commander for the Hancock County Explorer’s Club, which provides law enforcement-related experiences for youths and young adults ages 14-20.

Munden said he’d like to see the program expand from its current 15 participants to between 25 and 30.

He also wants to build upon the department’s neighborhood watch program, which trains and encourages citizens to report potential crimes and suspicious activity in their own neighborhoods.

Munden is a certified crime watch coordinator through the National Sheriffs Association. He said if he were elected, he would open up the opportunity to other deputies to see if they would be interested in getting certified to lead discussions with homeowner associations.

The benefits of the neighborhood program are two-fold, Munden explained. Not only does it prepare citizens to better react when a crime is committed, but it encourages communication between the public and police.

“It trains them to help protect their property and their neighborhood,” he said. “It kind of gives us extra eyes and ears in the community.”

Munden said if he is elected, he would also reach out to business owners to start a business watch program, which would function similarly to the neighborhood watch program, inviting business owners to watch out for one another’s property and report suspicious activity.

Shepherd said he is pleased with the department’s neighborhood watch program and would like to see it continue if he is re-elected. Shepherd said he has visited with neighborhood groups that appreciate the open line of communication with law enforcement.

Both candidates say they would like officers to become involved in the community, and that they seek to lead by example.

Shepherd has participated annually since he was elected in the popular Shop with a Deputy program, which provides a shopping spree for underprivileged children and gets officers out into the community.

Deputies accompany the children during their morning of shopping, and it gives the public a chance to see the deputies interacting with others outside their normal duties.

“I think part of my job and my desire, I want to be out there and letting them see who I am,” Shepherd said. “I’m just an average person.”

Munden is president of the Rotary Club of Greenfield, a civic organization that lends support to a variety of charitable causes.

He agreed that law enforcement officers can better do their jobs when they are seen as people first, not authority figures.

“We’re not just about putting people in jail,” Munden said. “We’re trying to make it a better place.”

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