Recently elected Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd is taking a hard stance on the county’s top crime — drugs. But he must now cope with a dwindling drug task force, budget woes and the rising use of old-style drugs like heroin.
In fact, he can barely keep the illegal drugs out of the jails, he said at a talk last week in front of the Payson Tea Party. He has already fired one jail employee for smuggling contraband to a relative in prison and surprise dog searches have revealed a startling amount of smuggled goods.
“Drugs continue to be the central problem that we have and everything spins off of that,” he said last week at Tiny’s Restaurant.
After 28 years with the department, Shepherd took over as sheriff in January. When Sheriff John Armer announced his retirement last year, Shepherd, then undersheriff, quit his job and ran for the top spot. He eventually beat out three other lawmen. Since taking office, Shepherd has careened from one meeting to the next, much like the van shuttles between Globe and Payson every day transporting inmates.
After months of work, Shepherd discussed both triumphs and struggles before a packed room of Tea Party members.
He says he’s proud of the highly qualified management team he has rounded up, but recruitment of new staff remains a challenge. Nearly every top administrative position in the department has changed since he took charge.
He’s proud to have a balanced budget, but the office continues to hemorrhage funding.
He’s proud drug prosecutions are up, but the cost and risk to shuttle prisoners back and forth between Payson and Globe remains a constant concern.
Problems with drugs
While unplanned jail searches have revealed contraband, he says the outdated, inefficient design of the jail in Globe makes it nearly impossible for staff to keep an eye on inmates. That’s especially true since the overcrowded jails are packed with drug-related offenders.
“The drug folks have to support their habit so they burglarize your house; they are high sometimes so they get into fights, get into assaults, wreck cars — all those things that go along with (drugs) continues on,” he said. “There is always the question, ‘Should we be fighting the war on drugs?’ But what else is there to do?”
He said nationwide statistics show drugs lie behind 50 percent of crimes committed.
“It is one of society’s largest social issues,” he said.
Moreover, he echoes Payson Police Chief Don Engler’s discovery that drug use has started to shift away from meth and prescription drugs. These days drugs like heroin and cocaine are making a comeback because they are cheaper than “new, designer drugs.”
Shepherd’s first order of duty after taking charge was assembling a management team, including a new narcotics drug task force commander.
Sheriff Shepherd speaks
• Medical Marijuana: Does not support and believes the Medical Marijuana Act comes with “so many problems ... I don’t really think it was a good move society wise for us to (legalize it).” He vows to watch dispensaries closely and keep the pressure on them to follow the law.
• Gila County Jails: Wants to upgrade both the aging Globe and Payson facilities. Concerned about the cost and liability of shuttling prisoners between north and south county for court hearings.
• Recruitment: The office continues to struggle to lure candidates from the big cities, which offer better pay.
• Staffing outlying areas: Working to get more deputies in these areas. Two deputies recently moved to the Pine-Strawberry area, offering additional coverage.
• Training: Working on additional training, including active shooting for officers. Already, half of the deputies have gone through active shooter training. Administrative staffers are getting cross-trained and brought up to speed on record management.
All new administration
The entire administration was wiped clean with Armer’s leaving and “I needed some help to manage 162 employees.”
While most of the staff in the office are on the merit system, meaning Shepherd has to have a reason to fire them, his appointments do not have that protection. They also don’t make any overtime.
“They really run for their job every day.”
He made Johnny Sanchez his new chief deputy. Sanchez has 40 years of law enforcement experience, 34 years of that with the Department of Public Safety.
In that time, he worked as a SWAT commander and on the governor’s security detail.
“He knows his business,” says Shepherd.
Sanchez was the Narcotics Task Force commander for the last six years and so his promotion created a vacancy.
With the assistance of the county attorney and ADOT, Travis Baxley was named the task force’s new leader.
Baxley, Shepherd said, has been behind some of the biggest drug seizures in the county.
And Sanchez, only two days after Shepherd took office, had fired someone.
A jail employee reportedly tried to smuggle contraband into a prison for a relative. Sanchez got out his pen and wrote the person a pink slip.
“His philosophy for work is work or get fired,” Shepherd, adding Sanchez is not hard-nosed; he just will not take nonsense.
Sanchez also recently established a physical training program, which the office had never had before. The program is so successful, other agencies are asking for Sanchez’s winning formula, says Shepherd.
In the jails, Shepherd replaced retiring Jail Commander Jim Eskew with Matt Solberg, who has worked in the jails 10 years. Solberg recently used that experience to quell a riot, Shepherd.
Several inmates were upset, Shepherd explained, that they couldn’t have popcorn.
They threatened to riot and Solberg called their bluff. They retreated and didn’t get their popcorn.
Working with Solberg, Shepherd has instituted monthly random dog searches of the facilities.
Previously, dog searches were done a couple times each year.
For the administrative offices, Shepherd searched for six months for a new chief administrative officer who could oversee a host of duties Claudia Dalmolin had handled.
He settled on Sarah White, who previously worked in the county health department.
Shepherd said White has already helped the office save money and avoid some serious mistakes. She is the cousin-in-law of Constable Colt White.
White’s position is no longer contracted, but considered a “regular” county position.
Part of White’s duties are making sure citizens’ calls are properly routed and responded to promptly. He said citizens shouldn’t have to wait days to get an answer on a case.
She is also looking at the office’s fee schedule. Several months ago, the Roundup ran an article detailing the fee schedule for records from various departments. The sheriff’s office charges $8 for a police report, even if it is only a few pages long. Other agencies charge less and some offices within the county only charge per page.
“I never realized that until it was brought to my attention, obviously by the media,” he said.
White is constructing a fee schedule that is in line with the rest of the county.
White also helped Shepherd with the recently adopted budget. He said she found a few ways to cut costs, which is important since the department continues to see its budget decrease.
In this year’s budget, Shepherd lost six positions and 1 percent of his budget.
“We are still continuing to cut,” since the economy took a hit.
Shepherd did balance two accounts and save money on jail supplies.
He has also looked at every single purchase the office made in the last six months “just to see if we were hemorrhaging anywhere.
“If we don’t have the money, we won’t spend it. If we need it that bad, I will come ask you for it, that is all there is to it.”
Thanks to some creative problem-solving, Shepherd obtained new guns for 26 deputies. The office sold seized firearms to a gun shop in trade for duty pistols.
“It didn’t cost us a dime and we are getting close to outfitting everyone in the office with brand new firearms.”