As Cole County Sheriff Greg White prepares to leave office, he feels confident the tasks he was assigned to accomplish have been met.
White announced in March 2015 he would not seek another term in office, saying, “I’m 64, and I think that’s old enough. We have some very capable people who can run this office, and the only way for their upward mobility is if I’m not here.”
White endorsed Capt. John Wheeler to be his successor, and Wheeler won the election for the job this year. The two have led the sheriff’s department since White chose Wheeler as chief deputy in April 2005.
White said his prior experience with law enforcement, jail management/operations, and civil process service in Alaska; his time as a director of parks and recreation managing staff and setting/managing departmental budgeting; and other law enforcement experience — as well as his years pastoring churches in Alaska and Missouri — prepared him well to serve the residents of Cole County as sheriff.
“The office of sheriff is unique in the venue of law enforcement,” White said. “The cornerstone of the office is personal and professional integrity; you either have it or you don’t.”
White said his biggest accomplishment while in office was changing the local culture of law enforcement.
“The greatest thing is not only building the relationships within the department, but also building relationships in the community,” he said. “By doing that, it’s made the department more accessible to the public. We can’t do everything, but we can do what we can do.”
He didn’t get into office on his first try.
White, a Republican, lost to George Brooks in November 2004. When Brooks died in January 2005, a special election was ordered for that April. Cole County Republicans picked Jeff Crocker as their candidate over White, who then decided to run as an independent in that election. In what turned out to be a five-way race, White won with nearly 45 percent of the vote.
White called the election results at the time a “mandate,” and said he had planned to help “lead the department through the trying times we have ahead of us.”
He was referring to civil lawsuits the department was facing, primarily over jail operations. Many elected officials said these were due to the county’s small, antiquated 1936 jail, whose problems could be solved if a new facility was built.
A $36 million proposal to build a new jail along with courtrooms failed in April 2005, but in 2007 voters approved a new jail and sheriff’s offices for more than $30 million.
White said another positive accomplishment from his time in office was the department’s resources have increased, although there still have been some difficulties.
“In this last budget we turned in, we were just shy of $160,000 in the black,” he said. “We also have $7 million in contingency, which is almost unheard of.”
White recently asked county commissioners to consider using the department’s $7 million in reserves to make three improvements at the county jail. The first would pour concrete and use the interstitial floor for some purpose.
Just below the jail floor that is open, the interstitial floor cost $2 million and was put in for future growth. The second project would put in a water tank to avoid the potential for a loss of water due to water main breaks. The third improvement would add a third commercial washer and dryer to do jail laundry.
This year the county commission approved three more jailers at the jail for a total of 38 jailers, up from the 18 who staffed the old jail. Even with the positions approved, though, White said the jail staff is still five short of the eight additional jailers proposed by an independent consultant prior to its opening in 2011.
“Bottom line is the staffing is not at the level promised to the citizens when they approved the law enforcement sales tax to build the jail,” he said. “It needs to be at the increased levels so we can make it the safest environment we can for our clientele, the staff and the public.”
As far as crime issues that need to be addressed, White said the majority of burglaries, robberies and thefts are committed to obtain drugs.
“We still do drunk driving enforcement because more people are killed in a year by drunk drivers than by all illegal drugs combined,” he said. “We look at it and we ask, are we making a dent? Sure. Every burglar we take off the street is one less out there. The driving force could very likely be heroin, meth, cocaine or marijuana use. I do think Missouri will eventually legalize marijuana use, starting for medicinal use and go on from there.”
White, who has testified on many issues at the state capitol while in office, said he feels there is a tendency in the legislature to “put a Band-Aid on problems.
“We have lots of laws on the books,” he said. “What we need to do is find out which ones conflict with others, get rid of the conflict, and then find out which laws are working or don’t work and get rid of those that don’t — and if it does work, enforce it.”
He also things more needs to be done to ensure cases go through the court system in a timely manner.
“People on misdemeanor crimes should never have to wait, and those charged with a felony should never have to wait as long as two years to go to trial,” he said. “Law enforcement has to do their job in producing good cases.”
White takes pride in stepping up drunk driving enforcement while in office and said he still catches some flack about no longer serving alcohol at the annual sheriff’s barbecue.
“It’s not law enforcement’s job to intoxicate people and then send them on their way,” he said. “I have no trouble with people choosing to drink, but I do have trouble with them driving impaired — and I certainly have trouble with law enforcement assisting them in becoming impaired.”
White has only a few plans set in stone for when he leaves office.
“I have a winter camping trip planned, three weddings to perform, and in September I have a backpacking trip planned,” White said with a smile. “And thus endeth my plans.”
By Jeff Haldiman | Jefferson City News Tribune