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Co. sheriff, challenger debate law enforcement

Becker County Sheriff Tim Gordon says in his four years in office he has been effective at offering positive solutions to big county problems.

Since he took office, there has been a 24 percent drop in crimes against people, and the percentage of cases "cleared" through arrest or conviction has gone from under 40 percent to above 60 percent -- well above the state average of 48 percent.

Gordon and challenger Jay Nelson, a Lake Park police officer, spoke last week at a candidate forum .

Gordon said the higher clearance rate is due to more deputies on patrol, freed up from transporting inmates to and from jail in other counties because of the county's minimum security jail, built at Gordon's urging.

Gordon also shuffled investigators' schedules to cover weekends, and added a narcotics officer -- all of which has contributed to the higher clearance rate, he said in his opening statement.

Nelson used his time to introduce himself to the audience. A 1983 Detroit Lakes High School graduate, he obtained an associate degree in law enforcement in 1985. He has 21 years experience in law enforcement in both North Dakota and Minnesota.

He and his wife, Sheila, have been married 19 years and have two sons, Jake and John, who Nelson proudly described as "honor roll kids at Lake Park."

Nelson says his eight years as police chief in Lake Park gave him the administrative experience necessary to run an effective sheriff's department. More recently, as a boat and water deputy for Becker County, he was instrumental in obtaining a federal grant to allow the county to buy its first new patrol boat in 10 years, he said.

Nelson said he will keep staff training updated and get new equipment when needed.

He also said there is a communications problem between the minimum security jail near 5407 Furniture and the maximum/medium security jail at the courthouse that needs to be corrected.

Gordon said he has taken a number of initiatives, won support from the county board, and made the ideas successful.

In addition to the minimum security jail, they include reconfiguring the departmental command structure to cut back on administrative personnel and save money, adding a narcotics officer and an investigator, and getting the maximum security jail fully up and running for the first time in years.

"The first term is about behind me as a sheriff with proven leadership, proven skills and a proven record of success," he said. "I've brought positive solutions in a positive fashion with commitment that has never waned at all."

Nelson pointed to his 21 years of law enforcement experience, eight years of that administrative experience, with the added benefit of having served on the Lake Park City Council, and having served as vice mayor of the city.

He has also worked in several law enforcement departments. "I've seen what happens in other places, not just Becker County," he said.

Doing quality law enforcement work and staying on budget can be challenging, both men agreed.

"It's a challenge just keeping our children safe from drugs and alcohol -- meth in particular," Nelson said. "Just doing that with what the county budget allows us -- that's what we need to work hardest on."

Gordon said state aid cuts to counties have made budgeting more difficult the past few years.

"How to maintain the budget, keep the proactive patrols out there, and at the same time deal with rapidly growing Internet crimes?" he asked. "What will society demand of Becker County? Will we incarcerate meth users, or use treatment? These are issues of the very near future."

Asked about the possibility of a combined Detroit Lakes-Becker County law enforcement force, Gordon predicted, "you will not see that." The two forces are designed differently and have different statutory missions, such as the sheriff's department doing civil process work and operating the jail.

"Even though we work very closely together, they have individual demands -- I do not see that at this time."

"I agree with Sheriff Gordon," Nelson said. "I don't think that's ever going to happen. I don't think people want that."

But a shared law enforcement center is another story, he said.

"In Jamestown we had a joint law enforcement center -- the sheriff, the city police and the state patrol shared a building -- it built trust and teamwork. That might be something to consider for the future."

Asked about the battle against meth, Nelson said, "Tim started the ball rolling by getting an additional (narcotics) officer for Becker County -- unfortunately, he's in the West Central Minnesota Narcotics Task Force, so he's not always in Becker County. It would be nice to have more here -- some crimes here are drug-related."

Gordon said the narcotics officer is paid in part from a federal agreement that pays $15,000 a year toward the sheriff's department overtime.

There are eight counties participating in the narcotics task force, he added. "When we need them, they come." There is also a local officer assigned to narcotics, Gordon pointed out.

Asked about domestic violence, Gordon urged people to let authorities know when there is domestic abuse going on in the neighborhood, and he pointed out that Becker County recently signed an agreement with White Earth and Mahnomen County to ensure that every victim is treated the same way.

"It's a model program going out across the nation," Gordon said, adding that domestic violence tends to escalate, and the idea is to stop it early.

"One thing we can do better," Nelson said. "Unfortunately, too many times as a patrol deputy I was going to domestics by myself. You can't get statements and control two people by yourself -- you need two people on domestics."

Gordon and Nelson spoke at a candidate forum Thursday in Detroit Lakes, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce, and carried live on KDLM Radio.