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Sheriff hopefuls offer look at plans

Publisher’s Note: The Erwin Record offered Unicoi County sheriff’s candidates Mike Hensley and James Lengel the opportunity to answer a series of questions regarding their plans for the sheriff’s department should they win the Thursday, Aug. 2, election.
The questions were asked by e-mail; following are the candidate’s responses, also via e-mail:
Mike
Hensley
What motivated you to seek the Unicoi County sheriff position?
I have been a law enforcement officer most of my adult life here in Unicoi County. I sincerely care about the safety and well-being of the citizens in Unicoi County. From past experience, I know how important it is for the Sheriff of the county to have a good rapport with the citizens and I also know the criminal element that exists in the county. I have children and grandchildren in this county that I feel I need to protect.

What is the most important mission for the position you are seeking?
When I was appointed Sheriff in March, I stated that taking drugs off the street would be my number one priority and it still is today.

Would you make any changes in the way the jail operation is structured?
The appropriate changes have been made and are working well.
What could be done to better the rehabilitation process undergone by inmates?
We currently have a program ‘Thinking for a Change’. We have an on-staff instructor who is doing an outstanding job. These inmates have the ability to acquire a GED, which will enable them to get a job if they choose to do so. We also have a ministry for the inmates if they choose to participate.

What are your plans to help decrease the crime rate in the county?
Again, I reiterate that narcotics are the fuel behind most of the crimes committed in Unicoi County. I have established a professional narcotics team to curtail drug offenders. I have and will continue the Neighborhood Watch programs.

What do you think are the biggest internal challenges (i.e., staffing, finances, etc.) facing the sheriff’s department and how will you overcome them?
The internal challenges have been overcome.

With the current economic status of the county, explain how your budget would be set up for the sheriff’s department.
The Sheriff’s Department budget has already been set up and is approximately $60,000 less than the previous 2011-2012 budget.

What is your position on the state’s open-record and Sunshine laws?
It is what it is, and I will abide by them.

During your law enforcement career have you ever been involved in an internal affairs investigation? If so, please explain the situation.
No I have not.

How would your administration combat methamphetamine production, sale and use?
We have already established a professional narcotics team that has made this a number one priority. The DARE program will be continued in schools to educate our children on the dangers of drugs, and also a coalition has been formed to help educate the parents and grandparents on signs to look for in drug abuse. My department has a good rapport with businesses where methamphetamine precursors can be purchased.

James
Lengel
What motivated you to seek the Unicoi County sheriff position?
Upon my retirement from law enforcement and my relocation to TN, I soon realized how I missed being on the job. While my current position as probation officer addressed some of my personal needs, as a resident of Unicoi County, I clearly saw deficiencies in the sheriff’s department and I became inspired to give something back to my county in the form of better law enforcement and professionalism. Because of my broad base of experience, I instantly sensed I am “The right man at the right time for Unicoi” in this moment of history when Unicoi County citizens are dealing with the need for a much better sheriff’s department.

What is the most important mission for the position you are seeking?
In regards to the mission of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Office, I have outlined, spoken and defined in writing a broad comprehensive list of initiatives benefiting the voters and improving the department. But I also would like to summarize an overall direction so that it is simple to remember for department employees and the public. So I also define the overall mission with three key priorities: a) Restore Integrity, b) Establish Professionalism, and c) Focus on Crime Prevention. Each of these will have measurable metrics (a balanced report card) to track progress and to ensure we are moving forward with the promises made to the voters.

Would you make any changes in the way the jail operation is structured?
Improvement to the jail operations and structure is a very good question. Instead of causing jail overcrowding locally, I want to pursue a program to have violent felon offenders sent to state penitentiary where they belong. At a cost of over $30 a day to house a prisoner I see no reason why this should be a sole burden on our local government. From my experience as a probation officer, another approach would be to use technology such as ankle bracelets to manage released offenders and to ensure they follow the rules of probation and do not re-offend. I would benchmark the program that Sullivan County already has in place.

What could be done to better the rehabilitation process undergone by inmates?
Successful rehabilitation of criminals is a universal problem because jail as punishment alone rarely yields long-term success. The more successful communities and their law enforcement/judicial system have run community programs with half-way houses that have helped in the transition of released offenders so individuals are learning work skills, getting a job and safely transitioning back into the community. This same approach has produced superior results for individuals dealing with dependency issues – alcohol and drugs. We already know that inmates, upon release without a place to live, without a roof overhead, and without a job, in most cases will return to crime, be arrested by law enforcement and back into our judicial system. In my opinion we need to partner with communities, employers and those who have had successes with rehabilitation.

What are your plans to help decrease the crime rate in the county?
Reducing crime requires a superior patrol force coupled with diligent eyes and ears of more than 10,000 households in Unicoi County. My job as sheriff is to ensure we employ the best, deploy more deputies on the road, rebuild professionalism and employ successful practices used by other outstanding police agencies. l will have certified, trained, investigators available 24/7 and I will draw upon my own diverse experience. Our citizens deserve the presence of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department on patrol in the county, although I plan on having a drug unit working the interstate stemming the flow of drugs into our county.
I will encourage Community Watch Groups which are critical toward crime reduction. Having worked greater Cleveland I know communities with eyes and ears active through “neighborhood watch” had fewer break-ins, thefts, and crimes. I will start a program for seniors and law enforcement working together, a program for youth explorers and enhance DARE.

What do you think are the biggest internal challenges (i.e., staffing, finances, etc.) facing the sheriff’s department and how will you overcome them?
The loss of two School Resource Officers and while employing an unnecessary administrative assistant at $33.79 hour is bad management by the current Interim Sheriff.
The current sheriff’s department is top-heavy. I believe in a lean operation. I have experience as a Chief Deputy in a much larger sheriff’s department, and I expect to be the leader of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department. I previously stated I am certain there are many fine men and women working in the organization and upon election I will meet with each one and evaluate their best role within the department, their strengths and their areas needing further development.

With the current economic status of the county, explain how your budget would be set up for the sheriff’s department.
Good budgets begin with good planning. I also plan to make better use of auxiliary police personnel to handle some of the less demanding roles.
Jail food is a large cost. I will look for ways to cut costs thru using in season food items, and buying food on a competitive basis. Gasoline consumption is another major budget item. I will pursue partnering with county road maintenance under Terry Haynes to obtain the best bulk gasoline prices as opposed to paying retail prices. Medical costs are a key expense with the use of Unicoi County Hospital when possible, and use of the VA for free medical care for veterans can save the jail money on medical costs. I will not compromise safety, but I will make sure every dollar spent is what is best for the taxpayer.

What is your position on the state’s open-record and Sunshine laws?
I believe in transparency in government and I support and will adhere to Tennessee’s Sunshine Law whereby “The General Assembly hereby declares it to be the policy of this State that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.” I also am in complete favor and support Tennessee’s open-record law whereby financial transactions are maintained at arm’s length and the public has ready access to information about salaries, vendors, audits, public opportunities for participation and similar activities that are conducted by the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department.

During your law enforcement career have you ever been involved in an internal affairs investigation? If so, please explain the situation.
I have been involved in a number of Internal Investigation cases, never as a defendant, but rather as an investigator. Some of the more noteworthy ones involved a sergeant who had broken into a Lieutenant’s office to steal questions to be used on the sergeant exam in order to pass on to a Deputy friend. While he was represented by the union attorney, the man still lost the case and his job for his actions. Another case I investigated involved allegations against an officer and through my work he was cleared of the allegations.

How would your administration combat methamphetamine production, sale and use?
My approach to combating the problems of methamphetamine production, sale and use is to apply structure and focus on the problem. To me this means having ONLY certified peace officers of the state of Tennessee working in the sheriff’s drug unit and becoming part of the First Judicial District Task Force to stem the flow of all drugs into Unicoi County. I would also work closely with local pharmacists, TBI, DEA, and all surrounding law enforcement agencies. Again, I mention the importance and use of Community Watch Groups provides a vital source of leads, complaints and information which must and will be followed up by the sheriff’s department drug unit.