With a year under their belts, Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Kempker and Allegan County Sheriff Frank Baker are finding similar public safety issues in their respective communities. Both were elected as sheriff after serving their counties as undersheriffs.
Now, as the top law enforcement officials in their counties, both of their top priorities are dealing with the growing opioid crisis in West Michigan. In 2016, 26 people died of an opiate-related overdose in Ottawa County, an 85.7 percent increase from the year before.
“Right now, our top issue is the opioid epidemic, because we’re seeing it numerous times throughout the week,” Kempker said. “It’s devastating to families, the individuals themselves, their friends and their employers. One death impacts so many, and that’s where we’re at with opioids.”
Kempker said his deputies are responding to opioid-related calls at least a few times each week, which takes up a great deal of both road patrol officers’ and investigators’ time.
In Allegan County, deputies may go on an overdose call less frequently than in Ottawa County.
“We may see a few a month, but with the propensity to cause a death, it’s really scary to see that,” Baker said. “It’s starting to trickle down from other counties. We haven’t experienced fentanyl yet, but it’s just a matter of time.”
Fentanyl, a more powerful and deadly drug that is cut into opioids, has already reached other West Michigan counties, including Ottawa. All Ottawa County deputies carry Narcan, a nasal spray that can save someone who is having a drug overdose, in their patrol cars.
Allegan County deputies don’t currently carry Narcan, that may be coming in the near future.
“We’re in the process of looking at a grant for putting (Narcan) in our patrol cars,” Baker said. “We’re not currently carrying it, but we’re researching some policies so we can.”
Kempker is growing increasingly concerned with the safety of his employees that may come into contact with opioids laced with fentanyl or the even-stronger elephant tranquilizer, carfentanil.
“In Kent County, an officer touched (the drug) and they had to Narcan him,” Kempker said. “It’s to the point now where we keep it in our evidence room in case somebody does get accidental exposure.”
While the humans that work for Ottawa County may be protected by Narcan of an accidental exposure to deadly drugs, the Sheriff’s Office’s K-9 employees are at a higher risk. The K-9s are trained to sniff out drugs, and they may accidentally overdose if they sniff out something laced with fentanyl or carfentanil. While the Sheriff’s Office can use Narcan meant for people on the K-9s, Kempker’s team is looking into getting an overdose drug designed for animals.
This is both a safety and financial concern for both counties, as both Allegan and Ottawa counties got several new K-9s in 2017.
“That’s an expensive thing — each dog is $15,000 by the time it’s fully trained,” Kempker said. “We’ve had to train and educate our officers about how to stay safe from it.”
While Allegan County is much more rural than Ottawa County, Baker and Kempker agreed their concern is so high about opioids because it affects all different types of people.
“We are seeing overdoses all over,” Kempker said. “We’ve been in $500,000 homes, the apartment complexes and out with homeless people. It’s a community crisis. We can’t just turn our backs on it.”
Both sheriffs are also concerned about staffing issues. While Kempker said the department has enough deputies right now, an aging employee base has him concerned for the future.
Before the 2008 financial collapse, the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office had 62 officers. Now, the department has 53. While Baker wishes he could have officers doing more proactive patrolling, he has to prioritize what his deputies spend time on.
“We are at that size where people expect us to have the resources that Ottawa County has, but being able to do that is a challenge, considering our budget,” Baker said. “We all know what the best way is to police. Not having the staff to do that is a challenge. You want to feel that you’re on top of those things.”
For Kempker, who has around 120 deputies and 250 total employees at the Sheriff’s Office, a large group of officers reaching retirement age is his main staffing concern.
“In the next 4-5 years, about 35 percent of our agency will turn over,” he said. “You look at the attitude toward law enforcement throughout the entire United States, and I’m proud of our partnerships, but we have a tough job to do. Recruiting can become an issue.”
One of the reasons for the high turnover in Ottawa County is what Kempker refers to as the “Clinton cops,” who were hired when President Bill Clinton offered grants that funded new police officers throughout the country. Now, many of those “Clinton cops” are becoming eligible for retirement. To combat this issue, Kempker said he recruits students at Grand Valley State University’s police academy on a regular basis.
Now that the two sheriffs are entering the second year in their position, they have lists of goals for their respective counties.
For Baker, his main goals are to do as much proactive community policing as possible and continue to build partnerships with community organizations. He also hopes he can continue to decrease the number of methamphetamine labs in Allegan County and educate inmates at the Allegan County Jail.
“Our staff has been very receptive to providing education to inmates within the jail, and this year we’ve almost doubled the inmates in the GED program,” he said. “Some (of these) skills and training allow them to go into the community and land a job.”
This year will bring a lot of technology updates for the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office, including a new radio system, a new records system and continuing to roll out a new in-car computer system for the deputies. The county’s indoor practice shooting range will also be redone, and deputies will be able to use new life jackets that were issued by the county on their water-related emergency calls.
Kempker also hopes to continue making sure citizens are not afraid to call 911, especially after immigration enforcement rumors made some residents fearful at the start of 2017.
“I am not in the immigration business, but I have a duty to victims of crime when there’s criminal activity afoot,” Kempker said. “My biggest fear is that there are victims of crime that are afraid to report crimes. When we stop someone, we don’t ask if they’re legal. I think we’ve quelled some of that fear.”
Both Baker and Kempker said they hope to continue to connect with residents and be open about what their departments do in the community.
“The key thing is listening and community policing,” Kempker said. “It’s very important that the public knows what we do. If we do something wrong, we’re going to face it. I’m available to the citizens and we look forward to another good year. My door is always open.”