Friday, October 29, 2004

Lieutenant and sheriff debate cooperation

Campaign forum heated with public inter-rogation

Express Staff Writer

The race for Blaine County sheriff became raucous Wednesday night in Hailey as audience members at the Idaho Mountain Express Pizza and Politics forum demanded answers to a question about apparent impediments in communi-cation and cooperation between the Blaine County Sheriff?s office and the Hailey Police Department.

The upstairs meeting room at the old Blaine County Courthouse instantly heated up as incumbent Sheriff Walt Femling, in an effort to respond to the question, recalled a multi-agency drug task force investigation that led to a her-oin drug bust in Hailey two weeks ago.

However, although Femling acknowledged communication between the departments is not good, the comment led to a public vetting of divergent stories about seizures of a large amount of heroin in Hailey Oct. 18 and 19 made with-out the help of Hailey police. The investigation led to the arrest of four men.

?Hailey refused to participate on the (drug) task force,? Femling said.

Democratic candidate Hailey Police Lt. Jeff Gunter had a different view of the day of the bust, which Femling said Hailey was told about in advance.

?That?s total B.S.,? Gunter said. ?I was on duty that day. We were not contacted.?

Femling insisted that Hailey had been invited to participate in the two-week investigation involving the sheriff?s office, Ketchum and Sun Valley police departments, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and state narcot-ics investigators.

Gunter countered that on the day of the arrests, Hailey police were not informed until after arrests were made. Gunter said failing to inform Hailey police of warrants being served on Hailey streets could have put officers in jeopardy had the arrest gone awry.

The full story still remained a mystery by the end of the debate, which included opposing views on how the county should proceed with construction of a new jail. Femling recommended that the sheriff?s office, consolidated dispatch and a new jail should be combined under one roof, but Gunter said alternatives should be explored.

Hailey Police Chief Brian McNary, who refrained from entering the debate Wednesday night, said in an interview Thursday that Femling may not have been informed of all of the dynamics of the multi-agency investigation.

?This is not the marquee non-cooperation case everyone tried to make it,? McNary said, explaining that in his view that communication problems started at the sheriff?s office. ?I don?t think Walt was lying. I can think of a lot worse cases than this ? There was some mutual work. But I don?t think Walt knew the details.?

McNary said, as the task force built the heroin drug case, extenuating circumstances, such as scheduling conflicts and personal emergencies, led to miscommunication. He said there was a level of cooperation preceding the heroin bust and that he told Blaine County Capt. Ed Fuller that he could not supply a full-time officer to the investigation be-cause the department was busy training two new officers.

Fuller confirmed McNary?s story and that Dave Stellers, a Hailey investigator, did come to the initial meeting of the task force, but he said Hailey police fell out of the loop on the investigation. He said the reason Hailey was not con-tacted on the day of the bust was because officers actively working on the case were too busy to make a call to Hailey police.

McNary said the perception of Hailey?s apparent lack of interest in the investigation came down to poor communi-cation at the county level.

At the end of the debate about the drug bust, Gunter emphasized that communication is the key to being a successful sheriff. The comment drew rousing applause from the audience.

?We need to involve all law enforcement,? he said. ?Agencies need to do everything as a team.?

Femling said he was proud of his department?s handling of the matter and emphasized the success of his 17-year record as sheriff. He also talked about the efforts of his office to share information, which will soon include a comput-erized records management system, open to all police departments. He also said Hailey would be able to share the sys-tem and that a consolidated dispatch system should be up and running by February.

?We are stepping up to the plate,? Femling said.

In other debate issues, Gunter challenged Femling?s commitment to the sheriff?s office, stating that if elected he would not participate on as many boards and associations as he asserted Femling does, including his involvement as a part-time jail construction consultant.

Femling countered that his participation in outside associations helps him to serve the community, emphasizing that his experience will go a long way to helping the county build a new public safety facility, including a jail.

Other debate questions addressed the candidates? approaches to fighting drug and violent crime to curbing road rage.

In response to questions Femling gave general answers emphasizing his success building a strong department with each of the top five officers having 20 years or more of experience. Gunter gave some specific recommendations, like publishing cell phone numbers of officers on patrol during rush hour to enable quicker responses to road rage.

Gunter also recommended that the sheriff?s office train officers to use stun guns, a non-lethal weapon, which Hailey police have been trained to use since the shooting death last spring of Ketchum resident Tom Algiers.

When asked, Femling said the department felt bad about the police shooting and that they were studying what new training can be based on the experience.

In another debate, Femling countered Gunter?s judgment that county staff levels were sufficient in the sheriff?s of-fice.

He said that with the rise in crime in the county and the population, more officers are needed.

Gunter agreed that as the county?s population continues to rise, more officers will be needed, but that current staff could be used more efficiently.

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