Jeff Dunn, a 16-year veteran of the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office, will join former BCSO Chief Deputy Larry Milstid on a countywide ballot against two-term incumbent Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack in a Republican primary election June 3.
Milstid, who spent 18 years with the sheriff’s office before retiring in 2007, also worked as an investigator with the District Attorney’s office until 2010. Dunn is currently an investigator for DA Hallie Dixon. Milstid was chief deputy under former sheriff James “Jimmy” Johnson, who Mack defeated for the office in 2006.
“I’ve been hearing consistently that the Sheriff hasn’t provided adequate protection for the unincorporated areas of the county, which makes up about two-thirds of the entire county, and there have been slow response times to calls,” Milstid said. “I have law enforcement in my blood and a number of people asked me to consider running. I gave it a lot of thought and with my qualifications and experience I believe I can take the office to the next level and serve the public with integrity and be open about it.”
Dunn, who worked seven-and-a-half years in the patrol division and eight years combating narcotics, said he also has experience working on federal drug task forces and still recognizes a drug problem in Baldwin County.
“I’ve worked for two different administrations and I can build on the success of both and learn from the mistakes that were made,” he said. “I have a big background in narcotics and I still see a big drug issue in this county. Rather than confront it, I’ve seen a growing trend here and nationwide in law enforcement moving toward militarized ways of policing. One of my biggest goals is getting deputies back to being peace officers.
“This county is growing and the population is growing at a rapid rate. Although we want to have a modern department, we still want to have that peace officer mentality and a big challenge is to maintain that close tie with the people we are working for and not distance ourselves.”
The candidates on this year’s ballot will be the first qualifying under a new law, specific to Baldwin County, requiring candidates running for sheriff there to “be a resident of the county for at least one year, a registered voter in the county for at least one year, hold a high school diploma or GED, be at least 25 years old and have three or more years of immediate prior service as a law enforcement officer having the power of arrest.”
Milstid agrees with setting some standards for a qualified Sheriff, but said the law should have been a referendum of the voters, not an act of the legislature.
“That bill eliminated 99.910 percent of eligible people from running for a constitutional office,” he said. “I would think somebody with good administrative skills that lacks a law enforcement background may still be qualified, so why not give credit to the voters and allow them to decide? If this bill is so great, why weren’t people allowed to vote on it?”
Mack defends the bill, which was sponsored by State Sen. Trip Pittman last year and signed into law by Gov. Robert Bentley, saying it was overwhelmingly approved by the legislature. And while Baldwin County currently stands alone with such specific requirements for the office, Mack expects other counties in the state to follow suit.
“A lot of people refer to it as a qualification bill that makes the Sheriff accountable,” Mack said.
The law also includes a requirement that the elected sheriff attend a minimum of 12 hours of executive-level administration training annually.
“I brought the conversation forward and the legislative delegation embraced it. People think I have more power than I do but I’m not a legislator. What [the bill] did is it set accountability and qualifications at a minimum of what every law enforcement officer has to have in the state. The purpose was to bring out that professionalism and accountability to office itself. I know of three other counties that are thinking about [adopting a similar law] right now.”
Dunn was also at odds over how the law was passed, although he respects what it intended to accomplish.
“Would I vote for somebody who didn’t have a law enforcement background?” he asked. “It depends on the candidates. Without on-the-ground experience, the patrol division has the most contact with people we’re serving on a day-to-day basis and without that experience, you’re missing something to be the sheriff. But personally I feel like it’s an unconstitutional law and we’re putting a difference on who can run for sheriff and other elected positions. I have confidence in the citizens’ ability to choose the right person that has the right qualifications.”
Mack also defended himself from Dunn’s accusation of “militarizing” the department. The BCSO currently operates on a $20 million budget and Mack said he has tried to direct the $4-5 million in increases during his tenure toward additional staffing.
“I know of no resemblance to the military we have,” he said. “We don’t employ a marine or air unit, but my career has spanned 28 years and law enforcement has changed dramatically. Under previous administrations, we were a ‘call us if you need us’ department. Then we became more proactive and rather than waiting on a crime to respond to, we saw an evolution where we work more proactively to prevent crime and lately, there has been more a focus on domestic terrorism.”
Mack mentioned Daphne-born jihadist Omar Hammami, who left south Alabama to engage with an Islamic militant group in Somalia, where he is later believed to have been murdered. Mack said more frequently, the office has partnered with federal agencies for anti-terrorism drills and grants, but enforcement of state law is still the top priority.
Mack said the issue of slow response times was being misrepresented and his opponents were lumping calls to crimes in progress with “break-ins and burglaries committed yesterday.”
“That average response time is not a true vision of how quickly we can be on the scene,” he said. “We have 1,600 square-miles being patrolled by 11 deputy sheriffs and you always want to do better, but that will come in the form of more deputies. Our response times are very good.”
By election day, each of the candidates will have campaigned for more than a year. Dunn reported $14,667 in cash contributions to his campaign in 2013 while Milstid raised about $11,000. The incumbent raised $16,965 in cash contributions last year and entered 2014 with a campaign balance of $4,394.59.
“I feel very good about the support I have for re-election,” Mack said. “You cannot be sheriff without some people being unhappy because you will have arrested someone’s son or daughter or investigated a crime which someone didn’t like the result. But we have support and people are asking questions. I’m going to keep working hard and be mindful about not engaging in negative campaigning.”
Voting for Baldwin County Sheriff is countywide, with citizens in municipalities and police districts also getting to cast a ballot. No candidate has qualified for the democratic ticket and the winner of June’s primary will likely avoid another election.
Updated to amend the total of cash contributions raised by the Jeff Dunn campaign in 2013.