Law enforcement in Sedgwick County has a couple of new faces at the top, and they’re bringing new ideas with them.
Sheriff Jeff Easter says he wants to improve management of the county jail, use “intelligence-led” policing to reduce crime and increase the overall professionalism of his office.
“It’s a lot on the plate,” Easter said.
District Attorney-elect Marc Bennett said he will focus more attention on prosecuting property crimes, reduce the backlog of lower-level criminal cases and try to keep the public better informed about what’s happening.
“My goal is not to turn the whole office upside down, but to improve an already successful office,” Bennett said.
Both men bring considerable experience to their new roles. Easter, 43, is a 23-year veteran of the Wichita Police Department who rose to captain of its north precinct and led a multi-agency task force that put gang members behind bars.In 2007 he was named the department’s officer of the year.
Bennett, 42, has worked for the office he’ll now head for 18 years, having risen to deputy district attorney in charge of sex, domestic and financial crimes.
A new face heading the district attorney’s office may be the more noteworthy changeover. Bennett’s predecessor, Nola Foulston, held the office since 1988 before deciding to retire. Bennett defeated a former fellow prosecutor, Kevin O’Conner, in the Republican primary.
Easter’s predecessor, Robert Hinshaw, had served just one term before Easter defeated him in the November Republican primary and then easily won the general election. He took over Dec. 15, after Hinshaw left office a couple weeks early to maximize his retirement benefits.
Easter’s first order of business was to attend the Kansas Sheriffs School near Hutchinson for newly elected sheriffs. Although grades aren’t given, it’s not hard imagining him placing at the top of the 33 newbie sheriffs. Smart, organized and friendly in a low-key manner, Easter also leaves no doubt that he’ll take a no-nonsense approach to running things. He was inspired to run for sheriff partly by the death of his brother, Kevin, a 24-year-old deputy, who was shot by a gang member 16 years ago.
Bennett seems cut from the same cloth. He has said he realized he belonged in the district attorney’s office as a career while successfully prosecuting a man for four murders in 2001.
Easter indicated that his first priority is fixing the county jail, which has been hit by lawsuits and charges of sex crimes against inmates by a jailer. He plans to appoint an oversight committee of mental health professionals, businesspeople, city officials, nonprofit executives, faith leaders and more to help.
“Right off the mark, we will look at all jail processes, from policies to the cameras we use,” he said.
He wants to work closely with Bennett’s office, the Wichita Police Department and other law enforcement agencies in the county, building up relationships that may help them combine some record keeping, property and evidence management and drug enforcement.
“Not consolidation, but just looking at combining services,” he said.
He said he’ll also push intelligence-led policing, which seeks to be proactive rather than reactive in battling crime.
“It’s kind of a new concept,” he said, but one he used successfully in the city’s north precinct.
Easter said he already knows many of the nearly 600 people he’ll lead in the sheriffs office. But there are certain things, such as a running a jail and serving civil papers, he hasn’t done. For that reason he’s chosen Danny Bardezbain, who came up through the ranks of the sheriff’s office with Easter’s own father, as his top deputy.
“I’ve known Danny for years,” he said.
Bennett didn’t have to attend a District Attorneys School — “After 18 years, hopefully I know how it works,” he said — but has been avidly seeking input from the employees he’ll lead and other people in the community regarding changes they’d like to see in the office.
Bennett sat down with nearly all of the office’s 120 employees and asked them to “walk me through their day so I better understand what you do. The gloves are off here. What do you think needs changed? It was time well spent.”
In addition, he’s met with judges, law enforcement officers, defense attorneys, federal prosecutors and others.
Bennett said that while violent crime naturally remains a priority of his office, he’s creating a new unit focused on car theft, forgery, identification theft and other financial crimes.
“Everybody knows somebody who’s had their garage broken into,” he said. “If the police work them, we’ll take it seriously.”
Bennett has also assigned an assistant prosecutor to expedite the handling of cases of people who are sitting in jail for non-violent crimes that are likely to net them probation, rather than more jail time, anyway.
“Why are we waiting six months?” he said. In addition to reducing jail overcrowding, “We do need to recognize there are victims out there. Every delay hurts them.”
Easter said he’ll also hold news conferences on a more regular basis to update the public on high=profile cases, potential scams and more.
“This isn’t a P.R. thing,” he said. “There’s a lot to be proud of and a lot that’s good that goes on here.”
Bennett said Foulston has not offered a ton of advice to her successor.
“The truth is, a lot of it doesn’t need to be said because we’ve worked together so long,” he said.