The hard-fought, intensely competitive race for Gila County sheriff revolves around a gang of controversies — including the troubled construction of a women’s jail in Globe two years overdue, increased jail overcrowding and questions of officer morale.
So far, four former law enforcement officers are running for the seat, hoping to take over the top law enforcement office in the county from outgoing, longtime Sheriff John Armer.
Running on the Democratic ticket are former Department of Public Safety Officer Craig Jones and former sheriff’s deputy and Gila County Drug, Gang and Violent Crimes Task Force Detective Ray Van Buskirk.
On the Republican side, former sheriff’s deputy Darrell Stubbs and former Gila County Undersheriff Adam Shepherd are squaring off in the primary.
If either wins, it would be the first time a Republican has held the office in many decades.
Stubbs hit the campaign trail this spring, anxious to try again for the position he failed to capture when he ran and lost against Armer. During that election, Stubbs ran as a Democrat.
Shepherd has also changed party affiliation recently, in February switching back to Republican.
The candidates offer varying degrees of experience, expectations for the office and plans for the future.
All the candidates have focused on tight budgets and jail overcrowding, but differ on whether they think the department suffers from low morale. Some deny the problem even exists, others say poor pay accounts for high turnover rates.
As the elections near, the Roundup will run articles on candidate positions. Today’s story offers brief overviews of Shepherd, Van Buskirk and Jones. A profile of Stubbs ran in the Feb. 17 Roundup.
Craig Jones (D)
Jones has spent the least time working for the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, but has a lengthy law enforcement career spread over multiple agencies.
Jones grew up in Pennsylvania where he worked for AT&T.
At 29, AT&T transferred him to Tucson and then to a “temporary” post in Globe. Nearly three decades later, Jones still lives in Globe.
In 1988, Jones attended the police academy and began work as a reserve officer for the Gila County Sheriff’s Office. In 1990, Jones became a full-time officer. Five years later, he moved over to the Globe Police Department.
In 2001, Jones took an undercover position with the Arizona Department of Liquor. After one year, he returned to the Globe Police Department.
Seven years later, he joined the Arizona Department of Public Safety as an officer where he stayed until he retired in 2011.
“The reason I want to run is, folks in my heart, I am telling you this, I want to make it a good department again,” he said. “I want to make it so the morale is way up and people are feeling good about working there and you, the people we are servicing, feel you are getting the service you deserve. I want to do this with all my heart.”
Jones says it is important for law enforcement agencies in the county to communicate and get along. From DPS, the Payson Police Department to tribal law enforcement departments — Jones says he has the skills necessary to improve cross-agency relationships.
Jones says he also plans to build up deputy morale.
“When I left, there was a morale issue,” he said. “I believe it can be changed.”
Jones says he realizes budget woes likely mean he cannot offer deputies higher pay, but positive reinforcement and lending an ear to concerns is free and effective.
On jail overcrowding, Jones said he wants to analyze how many prisoners the county is taking in from out-of-county agencies. If those agencies don’t pay on time, the county should cut their contracts, he said.
“There is no sense of us taking them in if they are not paying the bills,” he said.
On the construction problems regarding building the women’s jail in Globe, Jones said if he was sheriff, he would follow such contracts closely.
“I feel I am the best candidate because I don’t care about a money issue, as far as terms of pay for me, I am running from the heart,” he said. “I really want to make it a good department again and I want you people happy with the service again.”
Adam Shepherd (R)
Adam Shepherd’s 27 years with the sheriff’s office give him the longest local experience. He resigned as undersheriff early this year to run.
But Shepherd’s lengthy history with the office is also his drawback, insist his opponents. Some believe if voters want things to change, Armer’s right-hand man for the last seven years is not the one to do it.
However, Shepherd, who lives in Payson, says he has his own ideas for the running the office.
“There are things that work well and that are efficient and I will keep those things,” he said. “If there are things that could be changed and made more efficient I will do them.”
Shepherd, who has the backing of Gila County Constable Colt White, said his extensive history with the sheriff’s office makes him the best candidate.
“I have the experience and education to go forward and run the office professionally,” he said. “I already have a feel for what does and doesn’t work.”
Born and raised in Peoria, Shepherd moved to Payson in 1977 to run the family business.
After graduating high school, Shepherd volunteered with the Payson Police Department.
In 1983, Shepherd attended the police academy with Payson Police Chief Don Engler. After graduation, Shepherd joined the GCSO as a deputy.
From street officer, Shepherd made his way up the ranks to search and rescue coordinator, detective, narcotics task force agent, sergeant, lieutenant and finally undersheriff.
Shepherd said he always knew he would run for sheriff when Armer retired and likely as a Republican.
In February, Shepherd switched political parties, rejoining the Republicans after many years on the blue side.
Shepherd said he became a Democrat to participate in county politics, which have favored Democratic candidates, and to support the sheriff.
For as long as anyone can remember, Gila County has had a Democratic sheriff, he said.
With Armer leaving, Shepherd said it was “a no-brainer” to switch back to Republicans, where his political support lies.
Besides being a Democrat, Gila County’s sheriff has also traditionally lived in the Globe area. Shepherd is the only candidate who lives in Payson.
Shepherd said as sheriff he plans to give both ends of the county equal attention. Although most business of the sheriff is done in Globe, Shepherd said he plans to set up an office in Payson and have staff available in both towns.
This will strengthen the image of the sheriff in the Payson area and disseminate resources more evenly.
Asked if there is a morale issue at the sheriff’s office, Shepherd said he does not believe it is “all that bad.”
“Morale issues come from people feeling like they are not having a voice,” he said. “If they don’t think they are being listened to, they get discouraged. I want to give employees a voice.”
Shepherd said he is open to relieving jail overcrowding with early release, rehabilitation programs and house arrest.
“Everyone would like to build new facilities, but we don’t have the money.”
RAY A. VAN BUSKIRK (D)
A former volunteer firefighter, military police officer and speaker with the Gila County Meth Coalition, Ray A. Van Buskirk has one of the most varied resumés among the contenders.
A 20-year public safety professional, Van Buskirk says his experience means he can handle just about any emergency in the county.
Born in Globe, Van Buskirk went into the Army Reserves as an infantryman, but switched to the Arizona National Guard to serve as a military police officer.
In the military, Van Buskirk obtained his fire certification and became a volunteer firefighter and wildland firefighter for the Forest Service.
Van Buskirk moved back to Globe to care for his aging father and joined the Arizona Department of Corrections as a correctional officer.
With the DOC, Van Buskirk held several positions. As supervisor of the prison work crew, Van Buskirk said he never had a single accident on his watch.
Van Buskirk decided to leave the DOC and work for the GCSO after he saw an increase in drug activity. The move meant a steep pay cut, a sacrifice Van Buskirk said he was willing to make in hopes he could make a difference.
“I want to be here, it has never been about the money for me,” he said. “It is more about what goes on in the community than what I can put in my wallet.”
As a sheriff’s deputy, Van Buskirk said he solved dozens of residential burglaries and worked hundreds of drug-related cases.
Having experience both on the street and in the jails, Van Buskirk believes finding alternative disciplinary solutions for non-violent offenders can solve jail overgrowing.
“We don’t need to send the 18-year-old with a joint in his pocket to jail, we should send him to rehab first,” he said.
However, a person with multiple priors should serve jail time.
“I do believe in rehab for those offenders that honestly desire to live a drug-free life and I would work with them to achieve that goal,” he said. “There are many drug rehab and counseling programs that would be free to the taxpayers of Gila County.”
Regarding deputy morale, Van Buskirk believes poor compensation is to blame. If possible, Van Buskirk would bring wages up to meet that of surrounding county agencies.
“If the wage increase can’t be accomplished due to budgetary reasons, then work with employees’ schedules so that they can work off-duty jobs and/or second jobs to provide for their families,” he said on his Facebook.
On the other candidates, Van Buskirk said voters must decide if they want someone who is part of the old “regime” at the sheriff’s office. Shepherd and Stubbs are part of that “regime” while he and Jones are not, he said.
“I pledge to you that if I am elected that I will serve as sheriff with the same tenacity, same vigor that I have had in every other job. I don’t quit until it is over,” he said.