Thursday, March 06, 2014
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Chamber hosts forum for sheriff candidates

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[March 06, 2014]  Tuesday evening, the Johnston Center at Lincoln College was the setting for a public forum between Steve Nichols, incumbent Logan County sheriff, and candidate Michael Geriets, deputy chief of the Lincoln Police Department. The event was sponsored by the Lincoln/Logan County Chamber of Commerce Legislative Affairs Committee and the chamber's Young Professionals Network.

The evening began with chamber director Andi Hake taking the stage to welcome guests and introduce the two candidates. She acknowledged Lincoln College for providing the space for the forum and Mark Houpt for managing the sound system for the night.

Hake said the questions to be answered by the candidates were selected by a special panel out of public submissions. On the panel were members of the chamber's Legislative Affairs Committee and Young Professionals Network plus herself. She introduced the panel members, Ron Keller and Angela Daniels, and said that Blinn Bates was also on the panel but unable to attend the forum.

The moderator for the evening was Greg Basford, and the official timekeeper was Vic Martinek.

After introducing the candidates, Hake turned the program over to Basford. Each candidate was given five minutes for opening statements and the same for each question. Martinek would give the speaker cues on his time, and if he exceeded the five minutes, his microphone would be turned off. The candidates were also told that if they wanted to rebut a statement from their opponent, they could do so as part of their five-minute answer time on the next question. The first person to answer a question rotated between the two candidates.

Opening statements

In opening statements, both Nichols and Geriets stayed close to the script of the position papers they submitted, which are available to read in the Where They Stand section of Lincoln Daily News.

Nichols was the first to speak. He discussed his education and experience and acknowledged his wife, Cindy, and daughter Whitney for their continued support in his career in law enforcement.

Geriets also spoke of his lifelong residency in Lincoln, his experience and training, as well as his four children.

The first question of the night asked each candidate to identify his strengths and how those strengths set one apart from the other for the role of sheriff.

Nichols was the first to answer, saying he is a straightforward person who speaks plainly. He has respect for his staff and works well with other agencies. He said he has varied abilities. He added that he does speak his mind, but is respectful and listens to others.

He talked about being a social worker and cited an incident just prior to the forum where he had to get involved with a young person and DCFS, the Department of Children and Family Services. He said his department was able to get that young person some immediate help.

Geriets said he has excellent communication skills and is well-trained. He talked about knowing his officers on duty and off and said it is important to recognize when an officer is going through a personal problem. He explained that if there is a personal problem, it can keep an officer from being at the top of their game, so being attuned to these things is important.

Geriets said that as sheriff he would not just be active, he would be proactive.

Basford asked the two: What are your goals for the future of the department?

Geriets expressed concern over the turnover of personnel in the department, saying that Nichols had acknowledged many officers come and then move on to work in other places. Geriets wants to change that by hiring officers who will stay with the county long-term.

Geriets discussed a need to establish a better relationship between the sheriff's department and other law enforcement agencies in the county, saying he would establish monthly meetings with those outside departments so they could communicate and work together better.

Geriets noted that the sheriff's office does not use the Internet and social media, and he believes they should. He discussed how the city police department uses Facebook to share important information, such as suspects at large.

Finally, Geriets said he wanted his deputies to carry Tasers. He explained that using a Taser to subdue a suspect makes for a safer situation for an officer and reduces workers' compensation claims.

Nichols took advantage of his time to rebut some of Geriets' statements. He said the hiring process for the sheriff's department is an intricate process. He said, yes, some had been hired and then moved on to other departments. He added that most of the time those officers left for financial reasons, and he couldn't fault them for wanting to do better. He also noted that over his 12 years, he has worked to increase the wage of deputies from approximately $22,000 per year to $40,000.

The men were asked: What do you feel is the biggest threat to public safety in Logan County?

Both agreed the biggest threat is drugs.

Both recited their drug arrests over the past year as evidence they are on top of the situation.

Nichols said that in Logan County there have been dozens of heroin overdoses and heroin deaths. He would also comment later that since the large drug bust this past summer, there have been no heroin deaths.

Geriets said the city has also had a large volume of drug arrests, to be exact 23 in the last 12 months. He noted that in the battle to stop these crimes, one key component is to stop recidivism. He said the issue needs to be addressed with programs to help prevent criminals from repeating their offenses. He said that if this could be done, it would reduce the crime rate and reduce the number of incarcerations.

The next three questions ran together. The first asked about officer training; the second addressed the new concealed carry law; and the third was on medical marijuana.

Geriets talked about the continuing opportunities for training in the city department and the train-the-trainer sessions in the department.

Nichols took advantage of the question to talk about the Adamax training facility in Logan County and said training in his department is ongoing all the time.

He noted there will be special trainings for the concealed carry law, and he asserted the law itself is very gray where officers need black and white. Both men also stated they were in favor of the concealed carry law, but they knew it would be a big, new responsibility for the sheriff's department.

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Both agreed that the medical marijuana act and the concealed carry law were going to offer challenges for officers, and special training is required to assure those matters are handled carefully.

Geriets said one big issue is going to be with the residual effects of marijuana in DUI arrests. He said the drug stays in the bloodstream, but that doesn't necessarily mean the driver is under the influence. He noted the challenge is that there is no breath test for the drug, so officers will have to handle those situations carefully.

In answering a question regarding financial responsibility, both Nichols and Geriets spoke of their current experience.

Geriets noted the city police budget was his responsibility and that it was virtually the same dollars as the sheriff's budget.

Nichols countered, saying the sheriff's department budget had more involved in it than the police department because he had to work with courthouse security.

Nichols also took the opportunity to defend why his department does not use Tasers, saying he wanted his officers to take the approach of talk, take time and walk out.

Geriets rebutted on this topic, saying the city officers do not just walk up and tase people; they also want to talk before taking action.

One question that seemed to catch both men off guard was when they were asked to "define integrity" and explain how they have exhibited it in their careers.

The two candidates looked at each other; then Nichols, who was in line to respond first, quipped, "That is a good question," while Geriets laughed and said, "I'm glad he has to go first."

Nichols began by saying integrity could be defined in a lot of different ways. He said he knew he was not a perfect person, that he has had his ups and downs in life, but he said he has also learned a great deal from it. He said that he was satisfied with the way he has lived his life since 1986, and he did not have to change himself in order to run for office.

Geriets said he learned early in life that it is easier to tell the truth than to wrap oneself up in lies. He said in his department he won't hide anything from the public.

He noted the investigation of two city police officers that made the local news earlier this year. He said his department had been straightforward in providing information. He said he had conducted that investigation and had been thorough in his report, leaving nothing out.

How do you balance the public's right to know with an accused's right to a fair trial?

Nichols said that question had to have come from the Beason murders. He talked about the case, the investigation and said there were details they knew about immediately, such as a particular item removed from the house by the killer that told investigators the murderer knew the family well.

He said it was obvious the investigators could not tell the public all the fine details of the investigation, but press conferences were held regularly, including within the first few hours after the investigation began. People in the Beason community were told they were not in danger. But he held fast that there were details that had to be kept under wraps to assure a clean investigation and a clean conviction.

Geriets said his department often yields to the state's attorney's office, letting that office determine what can and cannot be released to the public. He said the city police department wants to be transparent, but it balances that with honoring the position of the prosecutor. He noted that the city has always worked well with State's Attorney Jonathan Wright.

In closing remarks, Geriets went first, saying he wasn't going to boast or brag about doing his job. He spoke about drug arrests again and being a proactive sheriff. He noted times Nichols has said the sheriff's department is not broken and doesn't need to be fixed; and Geriets disagreed.

When Nichols spoke, he said some of the facts Geriets presented were true, but some were also misrepresented. He said the current sheriff's office cooperates with all law enforcement and responds to calls in Lincoln and out in the county to offer support and assistance.

He drew on Geriets' comments during the evening about the Logan County Emergency Planning Commission, saying the county was also a part of the LEPC, and in fact, they were the first invited to the program by Dan Fulscher in 2004.

Nichols wrapped up by saying he was proud of what he has accomplished in 12 years. He's proud of the endorsements he has received from public officials, and he was proud of the work done in the investigation of the Beason murders.

When the evening came to a close, Hake returned to the stage to acknowledge Martinek as the timekeeper for the night as well as Deron and Kristi Powell and Jennifer Kirby as greeters, and her staff members Donna Smedley and Nicole Cox for their valuable assistance in getting the program put together.

After the forum had adjourned, Hake commented that she felt it had gone very well. A total of 30 to 40 questions had been submitted. The selection panel had reduced the number to 13, and during the forum the candidates actually answered a total of 11 within the time allotted.

The primary election will be on March 18. To read the candidates' position papers in Lincoln Daily News:


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