Three seek sheriff’s seat
Published: Thursday, May 8th, 2014
Current Custer County Sheriff Rick Wheeler is seeking a third term as the county’s top law enforcement official and is being challenged by Joe Bawdon and Seth Thompson. All three are Republicans. The winner of the primary election will win the sheriff’s seat, as no Independent or Democratic candidates filed for the seat.
Bawdon, 61, moved to Custer County in 1998 and has been in law enforcement for 16 years. He is a graduate of Highmore High School and Denver Technical College and has taken a variety of other law-enforcement related college courses in his adult life. He and wife, Susan, have been married for 24 years and have three children: Cody, 18, Casey, 17, and Cassie, 14.
“Basically, people started coming to my door a year ago asking me to run because they felt there was a need for a change,” Bawdon said on why is running for sheriff. “I kept getting more and more people wanting me to run.”
Bawdon has worked for several law enforcement agencies, including working for federal, state and local judges in New Mexico in a variety of capacities, the Custer County Sheriff’s Department and Reserves and the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks as a park ranger in Custer State Park. He has also worked part-time in both Jackson County and Armour to recruit and train law enforcement officials in those areas.
“I want to make the sheriff’s department a place where people can walk into on a daily basis and feel comfortable to ask for help for the services of the department, no matter what it is,” he said. “Whether it’s for kids’ sake, the residents, the tourists or all of the above, they can talk to us about anything they want to and feel comfortable. Someone will be there to give them an answer and, if they don’t have an answer, we will find one and get back to them.”
Bawdon said he feels the department needs to be more proactive in terms of putting deputies on the streets and being more visible and interacting with residents of the county to see what their concerns are. He also said addressing substance abuse, particularly within the school system, and making sure all of Custer County, not just the City of Custer, has adequate coverage are important issues.
“I know we have a contract with (The City of) Custer, and I would make sure that is taken care of, but we need coverage all over the county. We’re not covering it the way we need to be,” he said.
Bawdon said he would also make it a priority to bring the department’s reserves back up to full capacity, saying there should be 12 to 15 reserves on the roster, instead of single digits. He also cited retention of officers and community involvement as areas he would focus on improving.
Bawdon said making sure all of the residents and visitors to Custer County are heard and kept safe is a must for someone in the position of sheriff.
“We’re a hub for tourism. We have a higher volume of traffic to tend to make sure people are safe and happy,” he said. “We need to ensure the safety of those people. Not just for our residents, but for tourists as well. That’s a big priority for me, getting out and promoting the sheriff’s department to our residents and tourists and letting them know we are there for them.”
Bawdon encouraged voters to continue to read the ads he is placing in the Chronicle that outline what his tenure for sheriff would look like, should he be elected.
Thompson, 42, graduated from Rapid City Central High School and Chadron State College and spent the last 11 years as a deputy with the Custer County Sheriff’s Department, most recently as a sargeant and patrol supervisor. He resigned from the department when he decided to run for sheriff.
“Given the fact I have been with the agency for so long, I feel it’s a long-term commitment,” he said. “I was one of the deputies who was there the longest and I ran a lot of the day-to-day operations. I have a lot invested in it. I think the time is right. We have a department full of mostly good deputies. What we’re lacking is leadership and direction.”
Thompson is also a certified firearms instructor, has served as a correctional drill instructor and correctional counselor for the South Dakota Department of Corrections, has worked for the Hot Springs Police Department, the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks and is a “life-long gun enthusiast and gun collector.” He and wife, Kimberly, have one son, Nathaniel, 4.
Thompson said one of the things that needs to be changed at the department is better recruiting and retention of deputies. He points to the constant turnover of deputies at the department under Wheeler’s watch as an example of a lack of leadership, and added it isn’t because the deputies are underpaid that they are constantly leaving.
“What it is is poor command climate,” he said. “Indecisiveness. A lack of long-term goals, favoritism of buddies and friends over people who are actually doing the work and have been there a long time.”
Patrol coverage is another issue Thompson said he would address, saying too many deputies spend too much time patrolling only the City of Custer. Thompson said as he has talked to people about his campaign, those in the eastern part of the county have said they feel like second class citizens and are worried they never see a deputy, and when help is needed, it takes too long for a deputy to arrive.
To combat that, Thompson said he would reestablish the practice of putting a resident deputy in each of the larger communities around the county, which would improve response time and give residents of those towns a familiar face they can get to know and depend on to respond to their concerns.
Thompson also said he would push for more technology within the department, saying getting mobile data systems in the department’s vehicles is a must, and something he said he pushed for but that fell on deaf ears when he was a deputy.
“It’s a cost and efficiency issue. It should be a priority for the administration, and it hasn’t been,” Thompson said.
Thompson said as sheriff, he will be visible and available to the citizens of Custer County, working some nights and weekends, saying police work is “not a Monday through Friday, nine-to-five job.” He also said he will “bring office politics and good-old-boy shenanigans to a ‘screeching halt.’”
“All employees of the sheriff’s office will be expected to do their jobs, rather than playing games and feathering their own nests,” he said.
He also added that if elected, he would again personally resume writing the “Sheriff’s Log” he wrote and made popular for eight years in the Chronicle.
Thompson urged voters to think of the election more as a job interview and question who will serve the citizens of the county better as sheriff.
“I’m committed to this work. This is a little more important than a popularity contest,” Thompson said. “Don’t look at me as a political candidate. Look at the resumes, and ask, ‘Who would I trust?’
“I’m a known quantity. I’m the guy who has shown up at their door the past 11 years to help them with small problems and big problems. I know how the department works, personalities involved and how to lead people in the field and in the office.”
Wheeler, 60, has been the sheriff of Custer County for the better part of a decade and began his career in law enforcement in 1995. He has worked in law enforcement in Shannon County, was with the reserves for the Hot Springs Police Department, has been a special deputy with the reserves and a part-time deputy in Custer County before being elected sheriff and also has done some investigation work for the Hot Springs States Attorney’s office in the past.
Wheeler is virtually a life-long Custer native, having been born in Custer before moving away and returning in 1966. He is a Custer High School graduate.
Wheeler and his wife, Wanda, have been married for 37 years and have two children, Austin and Jenny.
Wheeler said he decided to seek reelection because he and his staff have spent eight years “putting this together” and he feels things are going well with good, hard-working deputies patrolling Custer County.
“I have some projects that I started I would really like to see finished,” he said. “We have made a lot of progress the past eight years doing things for the county.”
Wheeler cites a bolstered reserve department, electronic monitoring for house arrest, the department’s fleet replacement program, improved cooperation with other agencies, increased DUI arrests, two large drug busts and progress in dealing with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints compound as a few of the things that have happened on his watch over the past few years.
“I take pride in our department. We work hard to continue to serve and protect the citizens of Custer County,” Wheeler said. “I ingrain in all my employees the golden rule—treat people the way you want to be treated. I feel I am only the hub of the wheel. There are many spokes in the wheel to make this work—deputies, other agencies, states attorneys and many others.”
Wheeler also addressed two of the issues being brought up and used against him in his quest for a third term. The first, that his ownership of French Creek Auto Supply takes away from his focus as sheriff, he dismisses, saying he, for the most part, has turned the business over to his two children and they are now running it.
The other and most pervasive allegation being leveled at Wheeler is that he is only running so that shortly after he is elected he can resign and that a pre-determined unelected sheriff hand-picked by other county and law enforcement officials, will be appointed in his place. It’s an allegation Wheeler denies.
“If I’m reelected I’m going to go the full term. I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “Apparently someone has thrown something out there. It’s not true.”
Wheeler said the biggest challenge he has is having adequate personnel and getting that personnel adequate training to address the new waves of crime that crop up. He also said, as always, the safety and security of the schools within the county are a top priority for his department.
“I feel we have made significant progress in addressing public safety issues and creating a safe environment in which to conduct business, live and raise a family in Custer County,” he said. “There is still work to be done and I am committed to working with the team that has been assembled to address the issues that will arise in my next term. I have thoroughly enjoyed serving this community and county and I am committed to continuing the progress that has been made to this point to serve and protect this county.”
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