Accountability begins with attention – including to what our candidates say when running and how they follow through. On September 30, 2020, the League of Women Voters of the Grand Traverse Area hosted a sheriff candidate forum. This is a transcript of that forum, so you can learn more about where the candidates stand on issues that matter to you. You can also watch the full forum through their Facebook page here.
Bensley: Thank you and thank you to the League of Women Voters. I’m Tom Bensley, Grand Traverse County Sheriff. I’m a Traverse City native. I was born and raised in Traverse City. I’ve lived my entire life here, except for time away during service with the US Army and at college. I returned to Traverse City in 1971, began my career with the Sheriff’s Office as a seasonal employee in the Marine Safety section. Throughout my career at the Sheriff’s Office I’ve worked in all facets of the Sheriff’s Office, whether that be in the corrections department, at dispatch, road patrol, investigations, and in the mid-1980s, I was placed in charge of the recreational vehicle division which encompassed Marine, snowmobile, and ORV patrols.
I concluded my career in 1999 with the Sheriff’s Office and was retired until 2008 when friends and co-workers, former employees, and family members encouraged me to run for sheriff which I did and I was successful in becoming sheriff in 2008 and I took office in January of 2009. Since that time from the past 12 years I’ve been privileged to leave the men and women at the sheriff’s department and over that course time we have made many improvements and, modernization which partially came with technology and the ability to modernize our police officers with their equipment and with the technology available to make it easier and better for us at the Sheriff’s Office.
Hall: Good evening and thank you to the League for hosting this much-needed forum. My name is Greg Hall. I’m running to be the next year of Grand Traverse County. From a very young age I developed a love for serving others and throughout my life I’ve had some pretty incredible opportunities to do just that. From donating a kidney to a total stranger to volunteering at the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, God has used me in some pretty extraordinary ways. This run to be the next sheriff of Grand Traverse County is no different. Earlier in my education and career I spent 12 years in law enforcement, corporate security, and military arenas.
In these capacities I’ve responded to a wide range of calls ranging from fatal car accidents, drug overdoses, domestic violence calls, and everything in between. I’ve also had the honor of leading two presidential security details and overseeing security of the nation’s most lethal weapon systems. I know what it takes to protect you and our community. I’m running because I believe police and corrections officers have such an incredible opportunity to make a positive impact on those they interact with and I envision a sheriff’s office that puts this at the forefront of everything they do. I believe every person in our community matters regardless of race, socioeconomic status, and, yes, even if they’re incarcerated. I envision a new way of doing business that replaces the wrath of the criminal justice system with opportunity, changing people’s lives for the better instead of ruining them.
Over the past several years, we’ve seen a complete lack of leadership and vision at the top of the sheriff’s office and an outright attack on human rights and dignity for those held in the department’s custody. Issues such as jail suicide, medications denial, lack of basic medical and mental health care have become the norm.
What qualifications do you bring to the sheriff’s office?
Hall: So as I’ve mentioned in my opening statement there, my interests in law enforcement began at a very early age. At the age of 15, I joined an internship type program with a large metropolitan police department. I spent the next 12 years working in law enforcement ,corporate security, and in the military. In the military I was a military police officer for the largest population of US citizens outside the United States, responding to a wide variety of calls and also engaging in a lot of other activities. I worked in ministry security. I have been a member of the city police reserves albeit for a short time due to some health complications at that time, but all in all I spent about 12 years in the field.
Bensley: Well again, I’ve spent my whole career with the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office and I’ve worked in each and every facet of the Sheriff’s Office. When I was the supervisor of the recreational vehicle division, I was privileged to be able to work with the Department of Natural Resources in some submitting grants for those programs and since being elected Sheriff, I’ve had the opportunity to work very closely with county administrators, the county board of commissioners, the courts, the county finance department in running and managing a very large budget for the sheriff’s office. I’ve been a road patrol officer. I’ve been a corrections officer. I’ve been a dispatcher. I know the sheriff’s office. I know the community. I know that my many years of experience, not only as sheriff, but as a police officer in Grand Traverse County, has prepared me well to continue as sheriff and lead the sheriff’s office.
If you win what are your top three priorities moving forward as the Grand Traverse County Sheriff?
Bensley: Well, number one, and the audience can see this on my website, number one is public safety. Public health and safety is the primary responsibility of government. Public safety means that we need police officers in the community, whether those are community police officers or officers assigned to handle complaints in the community, to protect and keep the community safe.
Number two: there is a drug, specifically now methadone, problem and opioid crisis not only in this area but in the state and the nation. I’ve been trying for several years to add personnel to have a full-time interdiction team to (a) combat drug and opioids abuse issues in the county, (2) provide increased patrols in high crime areas, and (3), to be able to add additional patrols and visibility in areas that have high traffic crashes and complaints of driving.
Number three is a new facility for the inmates. This is something that each and every county commissioner knows that we need. They’ve had tours of the facility. It’s woefully inadequate to serve the needs of inmates we are serving today and I will continue to try and keep that issue moving forward.
Hall: Thank you. So the first one I think is the big elephant the room, and that is reforming the jail. You know, you heard Mr. Bensley there, you know, his solution is to build a new facility. The issues we’ve seen at the Grand Traverse County Jail have little to do with the facility itself. It has a lot to do with the leadership or lack thereof. We’ve seen the issues of jail suicides in the community, medication denials, late lack of basic healthcare, a recent finding by the National Commission on Correctional Health care found pervasive evidence that no mental health treatment is being provided to most inmates. We’ve seen the abuses of Todd Ritter and what that has done to our community. The fact that the current administration ignored whistleblower complaints around that. The fact that corrections officers wouldn’t come forward to talk about those issues while on department property, that they would only talk offsite. That says a lot about the culture there.
Another issue, I do agree with the Sheriff in terms of the opioid and drug overdose problem. This is a problem that’s very personal. I lost my younger brother to the issue. We need to sheriff that’s going to advocate and educate the local community on what the issues are and take a proactive stance. We cannot solve it through enforcement activities alone.
Do you believe that criminals can be rehabilitated? Why or why not?
Hall: I absolutely do. I believe people are what matters and that will be my focus if elected. We have to put people first. We have to make people better on the other side of the interaction they have with law enforcement, whether it’s on the street or if they are incarcerated. We have to do our best to equip them with the tools and the resources they need to come out a productive citizen. Right now there’s little effort to do that, unless it’s court mandated activities and so my plan would be to work with the local the judges, the prosecutors office, community resources. I’ve heard from many different community resources that have tried to work with the sheriff’s department and specifically the jail to offer services to inmates and not even getting phone calls returned.
Bensley: Yes, I do and the programs we have in the jail for inmates, such as GED programs, life skills programs, our Keys to Freedom Ministry, Before During and After Incarceration, work with the inmates. At our request a couple years ago, the county board entered into a contract with community mental health to provide additional mental health services for inmates in the jail. One of those positions was a position that assisted inmates in discharge or release planning. That position made sure that if the inmate wanted, on a volunteer basis, if they wanted, they would set them up with housing, clothing, and other resources available to them in the community, whether it be medical or mental health services, so that once the inmate left the jail everything was in place so that they would be able to be successful in the community and not return to the jail.
What is your stance on ICE holds?
Bensley: We here at the sheriff’s office intend to fully cooperate with all our federal law enforcement partners, whether that is ICE, the FBI, US Marshal Service, the drug enforcement agency, they are extremely valuable resources to us in some of our investigations and we are currently talking with officials from Customs and Border Patrol or ICE and homeland security to make sure that our cooperation with them is done properly and legally.
Hall: I believe when it comes to ICE we need to use the same standard that we use for any other law enforcement agency. In order for us as law enforcement to detain someone we have to have probable cause or a warrant that they committed a crime. You don’t always have that with an ICE hold. ICE is not required to meet that same standard of proof when it comes to issuing these holds. And so a lot of courts around the country are starting to deem that these holds are unconstitutional. In order for me to take somebody in custody, I need to know that that standard of proof has been met. So we would apply that same standard to ICE holds that we do to any other law enforcement agency that request us to stop someone. That said, I’ve had some personal interaction with ICE on a, you know, unrelated matter to law enforcement, but I found that the system is very difficult to navigate and so, you know, you got to have a layer of empathy and sympathy for some of the people that that are just trying to provide for their families, trying to trying to support themselves, and fortunately we’ve got a lot of opportunities. We have a large migrant population here in Northern Michigan. So there’s a lot of opportunity for them to be able to support themselves and provide a very valuable community resource. Cooperating with these ICE holds when there’s no probable cause just doesn’t make sense.
The Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners have rejected budget increases for the sheriff’s department year after year while approving other initiatives across other county departments. Your priorities may or will be based on the premise of additional funding. What will you do to garner the support you wish to receive?
Hall: So if you listen to Mr Bensley’s priorities all three of those priorities are based on funding. You’ll find that mine, none of them really are. I’m not seeking additional funding. I want to utilize the funds that we have better. I want to make sure that we’re allocating resources where they need to be instead of investing, you know, investing more resources into the marine division. You know, for example, I believe there were 1,200 hours allocated to the marine division last year. Those are a lot of resources that could be utilized elsewhere to combat the drug problem, to deal with the staffing shortages that we have in other areas of the department. So I think through reallocating resources and focusing on priorities, the priority for the Sheriff’s Office should be the people of Grand Traverse County, any activities that are not directly contributing to the safety of the people of our community really need to be removed from the sheriff’s department focus.
Bensley: Well as I have stated before, the County Board of Commissioners is responsible for budgeting for all departments in the county. We are a large part of that, but our efforts over many years, because of calls for service, population increases, and the needs that the community has for law enforcement services, which require police officers. We cannot hire a computer to make calls or service. When people call central dispatch, they want to see a police officer for any number of different calls. We have to have officers to do that. If we want to go after the criminals and have a full-time interdiction team with the personnel we have, we would have to cut some of our services and we don’t want to do that. We want to make sure that we have enough people to handle the calls for service, in addition to putting an interdiction team out in an area where there’s a lot of fatal crashes or traffic complaints. We can’t do that because we currently don’t have the staffing. We need additional officers. It’s just that simple. The county has not hired any additional police officers in the last 15 years and things in Traverse City in the past 15 years have changed a lot.
What actions have you or would you take as sheriff to ensure that minority populations in Grand Traverse County are not unfairly targeted?
Bensley: Well, our officers respond to complaints from citizens and until we get to those complaints, we don’t know what the issue is. We have recently being involved with the Northern Michigan Anti-Racial Task Force, now known as NME3, I believe, and are working through several issues that they have. We’ve had implicit bias training. We’re working with them to have additional implicit bias training and the discussions we’ve had as far as responding to calls where minorities may be involved have been very good. So we’re looking forward to those continued meetings and doing what we can to make sure all of our officers are acting and treating everyone equally.
Hall: That doesn’t go nearly far enough. You know, our efforts start before that call comes in. It starts in educating the community. It starts with screening that call once it reaches central dispatch, to make sure that any actions we’re taking, even the act of dispatching an officer, isn’t based solely on race or socioeconomic status, for example. We need to make sure that everyone is treated fairly. We need to implement body cameras, which the sheriff has resisted for years. We need to not only have body cameras on patrol officers, but we need to have expanded camera access in the corrections division, to make sure that we’re treating all people appropriately and protecting the county from liability.
We need to not only train and implement implicit bias training, but this is really about hands-on leadership. It’s getting out into the department, into the community, working with officers, making sure that the things we’re communicating are being followed through on, making sure that everyone is being treated fairly, and that every officer out there is responding appropriately. It’s about inspecting what you expect. That is not happening currently.
It is quite widely felt that the criminal justice system is broken. How will you use or how have you specifically used your authority and influence to make changes in the local criminal justice system?
Hall: This is exactly what my campaign is all about. You know, many watching sort of know the backstory. I got involved because two family members were not treated appropriately by this criminal justice system and specifically the Sheriff’s Office. And so it’s about making sure all people are treated fairly. It’s about again inspecting what you expect, making sure that every officer is trained. You know, again, you cannot lead the activities of a countywide sheriff’s office from behind a desk on Woodmere Avenue. You have to be out there, you have to be engaged, you have to follow up and serve as a, you know, both the servant leader and a coach for your staff. You have to know your staff. You have to know what their capabilities are and what their deficits are and where they need additional training. You also have to expand beyond the sheriff’s office to work with the courts, to work with the prosecutor’s office, to implement much needed changes. We incarcerate far too many people in Grand Traverse County and across the state of Michigan. We incarcerate six times per capita what Canada does,for example. We lock far too many people up. When you use data-driven policing you start to find pretty alarming trends one. One that I’ve noticed is that 45% of those incarcerated are in the jail for one day or less and so that begs the question: should we be locking those people up in the first place?
Bensley: Well, government works rather slowly. In 2002, 2008, and 2014, the county had experts from the National Institute From Corrections in Traverse City looking at the jail and the criminal justice system. In all three of those reports, they recommended that a criminal justice coordinating committee be formed. And in 2014 the county board passed a resolution to do exactly that. They did nothing for three years. Taken upon myself with then Captain Ritter, we began assembling a criminal justice coordinating committee. We met, had several meetings for about a half year and then the Board of Commissioners took notice, that “wait a minute, this is something we should have been doing,” but they did not. The reason they gave for not starting it in 2014, was that they had no money for it. So that committee reformed at the Board of Commissioners level and has been operating for the last two years since 2018 and this is exactly the place for the issues that Mr. Hall has raised to be brought up and taken care of.
It involves the courts, the prosecutors office, and law enforcement agencies. However, at this time that committee has not taken what I believe to be the very important steps to look into the criminal justice system and look at possible changes in the way the entire criminal justice system works.
Law enforcement agencies across the country have been under widespread scrutiny for years. What can you do as Grand Traverse County Sheriff to improve transparency and increase public trust?
Bensley: Everything we do is transparent. All our records, all our police reports are available under the Freedom of Information Act. Basically we can’t hide anything, whether it’s discipline issues with our officers, police reports, investigation, it is all open and transparent.
As far as the scrutiny across the country, I’ve said on several occasions: Don’t compare the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office with other departments. There’s a move now and a push for body cameras, as has been mentioned earlier. We’ve never looked into that issue. We’ve never spent the time. No one has shown us the need for body cameras for our officers because of abusive or uses of excessive force. One of the things we did several years ago to reduce the possibility of our officers getting into skirmishes or getting into fights with individuals was to purchase tasers. They have worked very, very effectively, are used very little, but the people we deal with know that we have them and that makes a big difference in the way that they react when they’re encountering an officer when they might think that a fight or flight would be a better idea for them.
Hall: I choose not to police through intimidation, by increasing your weaponry. I just don’t feel that that’s an effective method. We have to be transparent that the Sheriff’s Office has not been transparent. I posted a video the other day on my campaign site where Mr. Bensley specifically was engaged in a FOIA lawsuit for refusing to disclose documents and video. Any video that’s been requested of the activities inside the Grand Traverse County Jail, despite widespread criticism throughout the community, he’s refused to release. We have to operate with full transparency and full accountability. Every incident, whether it’s use of force or any other complaint, has to be investigated quickly and through a transparent method. That is not the case currently. So, it’s really about openness, transparency, making, you know, giving access to the public. We serve the public. We need to make sure that records, documents, video coverage is available. Obviously respecting privacy concerns where needed, but we need to make sure that that information is out there.
The outcry across the country has been because so many communities feel like law enforcement has not heard them. They haven’t adapted and responded to the demands for change. It’s not all about use of force, some of it is, but we have to make sure that we’re accountable and transparent in all facets of our operation.
How should whistleblower complaints be handled in the sheriff’s department?
Hall: Again, they have to be handled very promptly. They have to be investigated thoroughly and that has not been the case. In the circumstances around Todd Ritter, a whistleblower, a very courageous woman, came forward to report concerns she had about the conditions inside the Grand Traverse County Jail. Mr. Bensley ignored that complaint not once, but twice over the course of six months. That does nothing to instill confidence for the community or for the Department either. You know, when you look at the circumstances there, corrections officers knew about some of the conduct that Todd Ritter was engaged in but they didn’t come forward. So, you know, it begs the question why? The Sheriff has to be the leader of the organization, he has to have an open door policy, he has to be available and when these issues arise he has to deal with them transparently and very quickly, and of course in a fair manner.
Bensley: The Sheriff’s Office has an open door policy for the sheriff. The county has a whistleblower policy. And in referring to the quote whistleblower, as Mr. Hall referred to her as, there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in communications I got about Todd Ritter’s behavior with a former inmates in the county jail. It had mainly to do with Mr. Ritter’s management style, and nothing to do with the allegations which subsequently came out and were confirmed through our investigation. As soon as I was made aware of issues involving Captain Ritter, brought to me by Undersheriff Shea, we immediately started looking into these allegations. They were confirmed by an outside source, not within the facility itself. And once we had that corroboration, we suspended Captain Ritter, we had an investigation done by an attorney, which was her recommendation that Mr. Ritter resign with a contract, instead of being fired, because it would protect the sheriff’s office and the county from any further litigation or liabilities.
How do you feel about “cops in the classroom,” that is school resource officers?
Bensley: We have a community police officers in most of the townships. Those community police officers are in their communities, be it a township, for example, Acme Township has a community police officer, East Bay Township has two community police officers. They interact with people and businesses in the community. We had four school liaison officers working in East Middle School, West Middle School, West Senior High School and Kingsley Public Schools.We had a cooperative agreement with the school systems in funding for those officers and the school systems decided that their money would be better used someplace else. It was a cooperative agreement and at that time when the schools decided that they were not going to participate with us those officers were removed from the schools.
I feel strongly it would be a good idea. I have yet to meet the new superintendent and talk to him about some ideas that we’ve been tossing around in regards to school resource officers and I think that we may be able to integrate some of our community police officers into the schools on a more frequent basis than they are right now.
Hall: I believe it’s a very important tool but I think we also have to look at why many of these programs have been unfunded. When you look at the success rates, you know, most of us come from an era where DARE was prevalent. DARE was highly unsuccessful, in terms of having a true impact. And so when we’re looking at these type of programs, we need to make sure we’re doing it effectively Again it’s not necessarily a funding issue of how we do this, it’s allocating priorities. You know again, maybe pulling some of those hours out of the marine division that you know, the sheriff seems to support, and allocating those to the school, making sure we have a presence there. Making sure that all interactions we have as a sheriff’s office are based on relationships, building relationships with those students in the schools.
Too many times in law enforcement in, and certainly in this department, those contacts become transactional. We need them to be relational so that we build those relationships, students in our community feel comfortable approaching law enforcement. Right now a lot of the contact, you know, any of them may have is negative. It shouldn’t be the way but it is, you know, the way things are.
Discussions around police use of body cameras have resurfaced again. Do you think the use of body cameras is an effective way to build public trust in the police force and reduces incidences of excessive use of force by police officers? Should their use be mandatory? Why or why not?
Hall: Yes, I absolutely support body cameras. There’s no reason we don’t have them already. Again, it’s not a funding issue. It’s a priority issue that the current administration has rejected the use of body cameras for years and so you know, they should already be in place. But it goes beyond that, you know, Minneapolis, for example, had body cameras. They had implicit bias training. Spent millions of dollars on these, yet George Floyd died very needlessly. It goes beyond that. We need a sheriff, again, that is a hands-on leader, involved in the department, involved in department training, working on the front lines, seeing these officers, working with the command staff, coaching them, developing them, teaching them the things to look for, analyzing data to see how we’re applying new supports.
So, yes, cameras are definitely needed. They, you know, have the potential to save the county lots in terms of liability. They certainly promote appropriate behavior for our officers. And again, I support them not only in road patrol, but also in the corrections division, which has been plagued with just a number of issues.
Bensley: Well contrary to what Mr. Hall has said, we have never rejected body cameras. No one has ever shown us the need for them because of our officers’ behavior. And we are working toward that goal right now. It’s not quite as simple as just getting a body camera and pinning it on an officer’s uniform. There’s a lot that goes on with body cameras. Like I said previously, we’ve been working with the prosecutor’s office, with the courts, with the IT department in making sure that when we go forward with body cameras, which I’m sure we probably will do, that we we get it right from the get go. There’s a lot behind the scenes and part of that is money. There’s a cost for the cameras, there’s a cost for the IT, there’s a cost maybe for an additional prosecutor to make sure that all the redactions that are necessary for court, for FOIA, are done properly. So it’s a little bit more complicated than just putting a camera on an officer. And we’re working at this time with those different groups to make sure that we get this right. I’ve said before, we’re being very deliberate. We’re looking at costs. We’re looking at how they operate. And I have said this on many occasions, we’re not just going to jump in and then try to figure out how deep the water is once we’re in it.
How will you solve the employee turnover rate in the sheriff’s office, particularly in the correction divisions office?
B: Well, I don’t know that there is a turnover rate. Corrections officers have been in demand throughout the state for several years. A couple of things: Number one, I have said this before that sometimes the county may not be the best employer. The conditions in the jail are not ideal. It’s an old facility. The clientele in the jail, sometimes are not the best. It’s a difficult job. We’ve been to job fairs. We’ve been trying to recruit corrections officers for several years.
Currently, we look pretty good. I think we only have two vacancies out of thirty-four corrections officers. There’s been a big push lately to make sure that we get good, qualified corrections officers. We turn away many because we want quality and not quantity in any of the hiring we do.
So as an example, we have a difficult time in trying to find out and get the best we can for our employees. The county at times is not a good employer. That’s proven time and time again when we offer jobs to officers and they go and work for the city police department. That’s a little discerning. We’re in the same building. We offer them a job and they work for the city because they have a better overall salary, wage, and benefit program.
Hall: Yeah, so I think attributing the turnover, which absolutely does exist within the corrections division, to the facility or to things like pay is the easy way out. There is a toxic culture within the sheriff’s department, and particularly in the corrections division. Again, when you look at the case of Todd Ritter and the fact that employees were not willing to talk to the undersheriff on department property. They would only meet with them off site. The fact that they wouldn’t talk to other leaders within the organization or go directly to Mr. Bensley with those kind of concerns. They waited until a new undersheriff was appointed to come out with that information. So that that speaks a little bit about the culture within the organization.
People leave their job not because of the other issues. I mean sure to some extent, but the number one reason anyone leaves in any occupation is because of the leadership of the organization they work for. And so we have to work on that culture, we have to turn things around ,we have to let our staff know that we’re going to be responsive to issues when they arise. And we have to reshape the focus of what the corrections division does. It’s about improving people’s lives, not ruining them as is currently the case.
The charges against the former jail administrator suggests that the abuse of power and inappropriate relationships with inmates occurred over the course of several years. How will you ensure this type of conduct will not happen again in the sheriff’s department?
Hall: Again it’s a lot of the things I just talked about. It’s been engaged in the organization, you know visiting the jail. As a sheriff you should be at the jail frequently. That is not what happens currently. You have to be engaged. You have to work, you know, with the folks on the front line, you have to work with your command staff to really, you know, put your finger on the pulse of the organization to know what’s happening.
You know, the fact that the atrocities of Todd Ritter happened for so long, you know, a jail administrator that abused his power and sexually exploited female inmates is just unthinkable. And so, you know that the fact that he oftentimes left the jail and nobody found that odd or the sheriff didn’t see that, that just points to absent leadership.
You have to be there, you have to know your staff. Again, I shared a video the other day of the sheriff, you know, in a deposition hearing, just just a few, you know, a year and a half ago, stating on video that he probably wouldn’t recognize most of his corrections officers if he ran into them in Meijers. That speaks volumes about the lack of leadership, the lack of accountability, the lack of oversight, the lack of engagement in the organization.
Bensley: Well, I will tell you that I don’t think anybody can guarantee that something might happen, unknown to myself or other staff members, with 126 people, as long as we continue to hire from the human race. There are no guarantees. And I feel that the Ritter situation was handled appropriately when we were made aware of it. I’d like to use this analogy. If your house is on fire and nobody calls a fire department, how are they supposed to know to come and put out that fire?
Contrary to Mr. Hall’s statements, I am engaged with the staff at our office. We have captains in the building that I speak with very frequently. It’s a little different when the other half, so to speak, of our operation is across town. When I call, I have questions, I asks for things to be done, or in our bi-weekly staff meetings with the jail administrator, whoever that is. They get up, they give me the answers, they do what they’re asked. So I do have my finger on the pulse of the sheriff’s office through communications through the undersheriff, with the captains, and with the jail administrator. May not be as conventional as most businesses run when they’re in one location, but we do have good communications and that has been the case for several years, not only with Captain Barsheff, Captain Ritter, and Captain Hall prior.
How do you feel about harm reduction as an approach to addiction?
Bensley: Well we’re currently looking at the Hope not Handcuffs program. The undersheriff has been very involved with that. They’ve had some funding issues. The program now with Families Against Narcotics is looking into how that may move forward. Additionally the state police’s Angel Program is being looked at. There’s a couple of differences in how those programs operate. They’re trying to sort that out so that moving forward people with substance abuse problems can freely come to our office and be connected with someone who will take them under their arm, work through the process, and with the courts involved some of these people may have warrants. We’re working and trying to figure out how they can cover their court responsibility as well as being helped by others in the community to provide them the resources that they need to get rid of their drug addiction or issue.
Hall: I absolutely support it. As I mentioned before. I lost a younger brother to overdose. So this is something that I’m very interested in and very passionate about. You know, I think it harm reduction, there’s a lot that falls underneath that umbrella. You know, the naloxone program, distributing naloxone throughout the community, has had some success. We need to dramatically expand that access, making sure it’s available everywhere. The syringe programs, we need to participate in that, which the current administration has rejected. We also need to expand other things, like jail diversion programs. We need to treat substance abuse for what it is, a health condition, not a crime. We need to make sure we’re getting people the right resources, the right tools, connecting them with the right people to set them on a path for success. Locking somebody up because of a drug addiction, oftentimes just exacerbates the problem. We put them into a jail, where they’re around other people with the same addiction habits, and it’s just not successful. We need to connect them with community resources, we need to, you know, expand access in all these different areas.
What motivates you to run for Sheriff?
Hall: For me, it’s all about serving the community and doing so in a way where I can have a greater impact. There’s a clear need at the Sheriff’s Office for a change in leadership, for a new vision, for a different way of doing things.
You know, again communities across the country have cried out for change in law enforcement. You know, it’s about changing the culture and the mindset, realizing that that enforcement is not the only tool we have. You know, the mantra of law enforcement to protect and serve, you know, the protection part of that’s pretty easy that, the enforcement activities, keeping the community safe. But when it comes to serving our community, we have to understand what, you know, who comprises our community, what are the needs there? What are the challenges we have? You know, wrapping our head around this opioid problem. Understanding that simply adding to the interdiction team is not going to solve that. The drug issue is a supply and a demand issue. So we have to hit it from both sides. We also have to engage all the different partners in the community, whether it again be the judges, the prosecutor’s office, Child and Family Services Third-Level Crisis. There’s tons of community resources out there that want to help, that want to be engaged. We need a sheriff that’s going to bring everybody to the table to accomplish that.
Bensley: I’ve been the sheriff for 12 years. I get up in the morning, I enjoy going to work. I think I’ve had a positive impact on the Sheriff’s Office despite what Mr. Hall says. We have made many accomplishments whether technological or in operations or the past 12 years. There are changes currently going on in the jail. Mr. Hall does not realize the depth and scope of the operations of the entire Sheriff’s Office. And he suggesting that maybe we take our marine resources and put them someplace else. There’s not a lot of money involved with the marine safety section, and half of the money is by grant from the Department of Natural Resources. So that shows you that he really doesn’t understand or know the entire operation of the Sheriff’s Department.
Again, I enjoy working with our staff. They are very committed. They are very smart. They are always coming up with new ideas and new things to do and to make law enforcement better in Grand Traverse County. So I just enjoy the job. I think there’s been a lot of positive changes occurring recently and I would like to see those through.
What is your belief about being transparent with the public concerning the operations of the sheriff’s department and administration of the Grand Traverse County Jail?
Bensley: Here I think I’ve answered that. I think we’re very transparent in what we do. Everything that we do as a public body is open to FOIA with some limitations and we have a very very good relationship with all the media outlets in Traverse City and meet with them, prior to COVID, on a daily basis Monday through Friday. They ask us what’s going on. We let them know about the criminal activities or complaints that we handle. We get FOIA requests for information all the time. We have one staff member dedicated solely to producing a FOIA requests. So I think we are very transparent. When people ask us questions, our budget is open and transparent. We’ve been open and transparent with the County Board of Commissioners, who approves our budget. We’re an open book when it comes to the budget. People want to know where the money comes from, where the money goes. We’ve been very transparent in that for many years. So I don’t think there’s an issue of non-transparency at the sheriff’s office.
Hall: I will assure you there is a transparency issue. You know, transparency is not just about what you can obtain through FOIA. Transparency isn’t just about documents. It’s really wrapping your head around what the operation of the sheriff’s office is and it involves more than just documents. As I mentioned before, you know, video from the jail is not being released. Even in the case of an inmate suicide. There’s perhaps no more critical of an incident that could happen inside the walls of our jail then somebody taking their life, and yet the sheriff refused to release any video coverage around that. So it really goes far far beyond that. I think the sheriff is very disillusioned when it comes to what transparency really entails. I would also argue, through my contacts with the local media, that there is not an open and cooperative relationship currently with the sheriff’s office. Again, it’s more than just holding a press briefing. You know, if elected, I would certainly encourage ride-alongs with the department, open that up to community members and to the media alike. Let them come out and work next to our officers to see what they deal with, to see what some of the concerns are, and if there is any misconduct to allow them to see that first hand. It’s much more than just opening our books.
What is your vision for the future of the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department?
Hall: Yeah, as I said my opening statement it’s about getting the sheriff’s department to operate from a standpoint that always puts people first. People first in everything we do. You know, when it comes to the jail, which you know, certainly has been a hot topic tonight, you know, recognizing that although people are incarcerated their life matters. We have an obligation to serve those people well to make sure that we are reforming and rehabilitating and connecting them with appropriate resources. You know getting outside the four walls of Woodmere Avenue and getting out into the community, engaging the community, being active, getting into the schools. You know, the new superintendent’s been in place for awhile now. There’s no reason that interaction hasn’t take place yet. Being involved, being engaged, you know, working alongside officers, really changing that mindset. You know, traditional law enforcement thinking is very focused on enforcement activities, and that will always be a piece of it. But we have to get back to serving our community and really understanding what that means as a sheriff’s office.
Bensley: Well, number one, I think it’s our responsibility, as I’ve said before, to protect the public. That should be our first and foremost goal, and we need to keep focused on that.
We need to be able to have the people to respond to calls, to make sure that their concerns are taken care of. Whether it’s someone who is uncomfortable in their home because of a recent activity that they aren’t sure of, they don’t know what’s going on, we want to be able to assure them that they are safe by going and responding to those calls.
The Sheriff’s Office is a very large operation with 126 employees. We support the employees. Again, it’s been difficult for us to find corrections officers at the jail simply because of the climate for corrections officers. One thing we did do is that we started a bailiff’s program to take the court duties responsibilities away from the corrections officers, so they could spend more time in the jail.
Unfortunately, the virus has disrupted just about everything that we’ve been doing lately, has thrown us off track, and we’re starting to get back on track with our programs on the law enforcement side and in the correction side.
How do you feel about entering the cross-deputization agreements with the Grand Traverse Band as they have with other counties? During the last ten years this was turned down by the sheriff unless new patrol cars and other large monies were received as payment from the Grand Traverse Band.
Bensley: Well, actually that statement is not entirely true. We’ve been working for many years with the captain of the tribal police department, Captain David Crockett. We have been trying to come up with a very short agreement, to make it clear and simple where our officers could investigate and handle complaints on tribal lands. The County Board of Commissioners has had an issue on how that would be funded from the tribe and it deals with their 2% funding. So we’ve been working with, recently, with Captain Crockett in trying to come to some agreement. Our county is a little different than the other counties. We do not have a lot of residential properties that are in trust with the Grand Traverse Band until recent development on Hertner Road. We have not had or experienced a real need on their other properties, primarily the Turtle Creek Casino in Williamsburg. So, we’re trying to work out something that’s very easy and simple for our officers to understand and hopefully we’ll come to some agreement, a little different than the traditional cross-deputization agreement that they have with other counties.
Hall: So I fully support it. There’s no reason we don’t already have it in place. The fact that the majority of the surrounding counties do have it in place, you know, agains speaks a little bit about the approach that we’ve had here in Grand Traverse County. You know everything that Mr. Bensley has talked about tonight has been contingent on funding. Particularly in a post-COVID environment here, funding’s gonna be restricted. And so, you know, when we run into these obstacles, we can’t just say funding as the issue. We have to get creative. We have to find different solutions. You know, here we got tribal officers, you know, willing to step in and help Grand Traverse County, and hopefully we’d be able to reciprocate that. There’s simply no reason that that hasn’t been done.
You know, all these plans and programs don’t take years to research. Statistics on, you know, on the use of body cameras, for example, they’ve been out there for years. Other departments implemented them decades, you know, a decade ago and so the fact that Grand Traverse County is so far behind here in many of these different areas is just inexplicable.
Why have there been almost 12,000 stops in 2019, but only 2,300 arrests? Why are all of these stops necessary?
Hall: So ‘d have to know specifically what type of stops they’re referring to, whether it’s just traffic or something else. You know, one of the roles of the Sheriff’s Office and any law enforcement ages agency is to engage the community and to educate the community. Again, it’s not all about the enforcement activity. You know, certainly if there’s crimes being ignored or, you know, public safety is put at risk then that’s something we would have to deal with. But without knowing specifically what, you know, stats they’re referring to, it’s difficult to address that question.
Bensley: Yes, I would agree that where the figures come from, are they from our office, what were the arrests for, so it’s kind of a vague question and would need a lot of clarification.
Hall: I just want to thank you again for the opportunity to share a little bit about my campaign and specifically my vision. Hopefully after listening tonight your decision on who should be the next sheriff of Grand Traverse County will be a little easier. My campaign is all about changing the mindset and a culture within the local law enforcement community. It’s about putting people first, not power, positions, or politics. It’s a commitment to bringing new ideas and thinking outside the box to solve the challenges we face, not allowing funding to be an obstacle. It’s putting old ways of doing business behind us and eradicating the good old boys club that has lingered in Grand Traverse County for far too long. The sheriff’s office and the community deserve a hands-on leader that will not only cast a vision, but will also coach and lead the team necessary to carry it out. And if misconduct occurs in the department, the public deserves a leader that will act quickly and transparently to ensure the highest ethical standards and accountability. T
Bensley: Thank you and again thanks for this opportunity. I think there’s no question that with my experience and years of service at the sheriff’s office and as the sheriff far outweigh Mr. Hall’s experience in law enforcement. My dealings with the county, with the county board of commissioners, with our budgets with discipline and discharge issues when they arise, speaks volumes to my ability to handle these issues when they come up. Specifically, the Ritter issue when we found out about it, we took action. Unfortunately, that is still lingering months and months after Mr. Ritter was let go from the sheriff’s office.