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Chief deputy vs. undersheriff: There is a difference

Gerald Moe

 Twenty-two years ago, Douglas County commissioned a study on the operations of the Sheriff’s Office. The No. 2 recommendation out of 66 from that study was the implementation of the civil service/chief deputy system versus the former undersheriff system that was in place then.

With the undersheriff system, a newly elected sheriff could appoint any person of his choosing to the position. This appointee would not have to have any law enforcement or managerial experience or background. It could be the sheriff’s grandmother, best friend or a political payback. The only qualification the undersheriff required would be his loyalty to the sheriff himself.

It makes for a dangerous and potentially corrupt situation, turning the operation of the sheriff’s office and by extension, public safety, into a political football.

The county opted to follow the recommendation to switch to the civil service/chief deputy system.

What this does is prevent a newly elected sheriff from removing a sitting chief deputy from the position for arbitrary or political reasons. From the study: “We make this recommendation primarily for continuity of Department operations and professionalism reasons. The chief deputy should be the chief operational officer of the department. A chief deputy ensures operational continuity with a person having professional training and prior supervisory and management law enforcement experience. Most Wisconsin counties have adopted the chief deputy arrangement.”

I do not believe the elected Office of Sheriff should be a partisan political one. I do not believe a sheriff should place politics above all else. There is no room for politics in law enforcement or public safety.

When I began my career in this department more than 26 years ago, I was told, and the culture was: “Don’t do anything. That way you can’t get in trouble for it.”

That’s just wrong; there is no room for “not doing anything” in this business, either.

Over the past 16 years, from a leadership position as a patrol sergeant and operations lieutenant, I have worked to change that culture.

As chief deputy for the last 2½ years, I have made it priority one to operate this department based on the ethical, character-driven model of law enforcement. At the heart of this model is doing the right thing, the right way, for the right reasons. Apathy is no longer the culture. Employees have been disciplined, demoted or terminated, not because it was the easy thing to do, but because it was the right thing to do for the good of the department.

We need to be accountable ourselves before we can hold others accountable. That is the only way to gain the public trust.

I am proud to state the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office operates in an open and ethical manner and is well on its way to achieving its vision of having a highly trained and highly motivated workforce to carry out its law enforcement mission.

The chief deputy system was enacted because of a political, non-law enforcement oriented-sheriff. Laws were not enforced because it would have been “political suicide” to enforce them. That way of thinking is a fundamental failure in mission. And isn’t that what this should really be about, the law enforcement mission?

The mission is bigger than any one man’s or one woman’s personal political aspirations.

Therefore, as Chief Deputy, I will continue to be neither beholden nor loyal to anybody’s political ambitions or a political party.

My loyalty is to the badge on my chest, to the men, women and department I represent, and to the citizens I am sworn to protect.

What honest and ethical sheriff could ask for more than that?

Gerald Moe is chief deputy of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.