Voters need to be thoughtful in choosing next sheriff

With incumbent Michel Wetzel retiring after ably serving Morrison County for three terms, voters will have an important decision to make this fall in choosing a new sheriff.

The filing period for county offices opens Tuesday, and already four candidates have announced that they would like to succeed Wetzel, each from a different community: Little Falls, Randall, Royalton and Pierz. We hope, however, that voters do not base their decision on geography or who has the best smile or handshake.

Yes, a sheriff is part politician; it is an elected position after all. But we ask a sheriff to wear several different hats. We expect him to be the chief crime-fighter in the county, but we also expect him to be chief advocate for the law-abiding majority. Those are two different roles.

Some of us see the world in black-and-white terms. Those types of voters are more likely to want a “tough guy” type who makes sure the wrong-doers regret the errors of their ways.

Others of us see more gray, and believe that crime is not just evil vs. good, but is caused by several factors, including not only poor character traits, but poverty, a bad family life and/or mental illness. Those voters will want a more understanding sheriff.

Still others want a sheriff who is not only reactive to crime, but proactive when it comes to prevention, employing the latest techniques that have proven effective elsewhere.

The way law enforcement is practiced in a community does make a difference. Some large cities, for example, have found great benefit by practicing the “broken windows” concept of crime fighting, demanding zero tolerance on lower-level offenses like school truancy, vandalism and graffiti as a way to prevent major crimes like theft, robbery and assault.

A good sheriff also needs to be a leader in many ways. The sheriff needs to have the respect of the people working under him, of other law enforcement agencies including the county attorney’s office and of the county commissioners (of which two seats will be up for election this fall as well). He needs to be able to hire the right people, and also advocate for the funding levels needed, so that his department can be effective without being wasteful.

In short, it’s a big job, and not for everybody. We urge voters to take advantage of opportunities to meet the candidates and quiz them closely on their views of crime-fighting and law enforcement. Voters cannot afford to make a mistake in whom they choose for this important position.