A police captain, a former DEA agent, a pot advocate and a business owner with a severe mistrust of the cops are running for sheriff.
It isn’t the plot of a quirky comedy or a neo-noir crime thriller about the eccentricities of people living in the Florida Keys. This is the real race for sheriff of Monroe County.
Most votes likely will go to sheriff’s office Capt. Bob Peryam and Ken Davis, former Drug Enforcement Administration resident agent-in-charge of the Keys.
However, Sandy Downs, 49, the Cudjoe Key tree-service owner, has also waged a serious candidacy. She has been intent on showing that her lack of law enforcement experience is actually an asset because she has no ties to a system she thinks needs changing.
“I am beholden to no one. I owe no favors, I treat all equally, I am fair and I will listen,” Downs said.
According to her campaign website, much of Downs’ problems with local police stems from what she calls harassment of one of her sons by Keys deputies.
Bob Horan, a cook at Leigh Ann’s Coffee House, runs year after year for various offices on the marijuana-legalization platform. His campaigns are usually more about promoting ideas, like ditching the war on drugs for a “war on litter,” than they are about actually achieving office.
Asked about his view on unsupervised teen parties in the Keys, for example, Horan responded he’s all for not stopping them.
“That’s where I learned about sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. I will say [teenagers] ought to do a little more studying so they can move on to bigger and better parties in college,” Horan, 65, told The Reporter.
But the issues that have gained the most attention in this race to replace retiring Sheriff Rick Roth are civilian oversight of the police, jails, the necessity for a county-operated helicopter, and retaining qualified deputies.
And the race between Peryam and Davis is playing out to be one of Davis’ message of change vs. Peryam’s support of most current practices.
Davis is running as a Republican. Peryam is a Democrat. Downs and Horan have no party affiliation.
On the issue of a citizen review board to oversee the sheriff’s office, opinions vary among the candidates. Davis, 52, says a true professional police agency has no need for a civilian oversight entity.
“In a professional and respected law enforcement agency, a citizen review board is not needed, nor called for by its citizenry,” Davis said. “A CRB is the result of a law enforcement agency losing the citizens’ trust to properly police itself.”
Peryam, 53, supports the idea of a citizen review board, but also defended the department’s internal investigation practices, including the fact that the head of the internal affairs division is the wife of a senior officer — specifically Peryam’s wife, Cindy.
He said if he is elected, Cindy Peryam “will not remain in charge of Internal Affairs.”
Davis slammed the sheriff’s office for letting Cindy Peryam head the division. “In all my 28 years in law enforcement, I have never seen a situation where a conflict of interest was so blatant,” he said.
Horan said in an interview he thought citizen review boards are a good idea. “It’s good to have oversight over the police and the sheriff,” Horan said.
Downs takes credit for being the first candidate to suggest a citizen review board. “If I am sheriff, I would welcome inspection of the way I conduct business. I was the first and only candidate to make this an issue, and the overwhelming response of the citizens tells me they want a citizen review board now,” she said.
All four candidates have different ideas of how the county jails should be run.
Davis says jails have become “a refuge instead of a punishment” for many criminals in the county. He said the jail population has more than doubled since 1990, from an average of 290 inmates then to more than 600 today.
He says much of the reason for the hike is that most inmates have drug and alcohol addictions, others have mental health issues and 25 percent of the jail population is made up of homeless people. He said many inmates are in jail because they want to be there.
“I believe in tougher jails. With amenities such as air-conditioned living quarters, cable television, Internet access and free health and dental care, incarceration in Monroe County is no longer a deterrent to crime. In many cases, it is an attraction,” Davis said.
Peryam defended the operation of the jails, denying that inmates have Internet access and cigarettes, as Davis has also said. Regarding health and dental care, Peryam said, “The law requires the jails to provide necessary medical and dental services to inmates, and it has to be comparable to the services that persons in the general population receive.”
Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Deputy Becky Herrin also said inmates do not have Internet access. Inmates not in maximum security can watch basic cable television in a commons area, and can access a computer database — not the Internet — in the jails’ legal library.
Both Davis and Peryam said there is a need to reduce the amount of jail inmates with substance abuse and mental health problems.
“I want the sheriff’s office to join the coalition for the homeless, the addicted and the mentally ill,” Davis said. “By joining forces with and building a strong coalition, we can save millions of dollars budgeted for the jail.”
This is one area Peryam seems to agree with Davis. “We need to aggressively pursue and support diversion programs for the mentally ill and/or those with dual diagnosis — mentally ill and substance abuser,” he said. “Jail is not the place for mentally ill persons.”
But their methods to achieve this goal vary.
Peryam supports giving inmates more to do. “One way to reduce the cost to our citizens is to reduce jail recidivism by changing inmates into workmates through education and vocational training,” he said.
Davis stresses a policy of tougher time for most inmates combined with the help of area nonprofit groups to reduce the number of homeless and drug-addicted inmates who get arrested just to have a place to stay.
“I promise to make the Monroe County jails the worst in the state of Florida while still maintaining the Florida Model Jail Standards,” Davis said.
“But we need the help and services of the nonprofits in order to not just drive them out of Monroe, but to drive them to addressing the problem and issues that got them there in the first place.”
Downs said the county jails are run inhumanely and violate “the U.N. mandate on the treatment of prisoners.” She said most inmates should be involved with work and education programs to reduce the recidivism rate.
“I believe all inmates should work unless they are a threat to other inmates or society,” she said. “I want a nursery and a garden run by inmates. I want the inmates to clean our streets and beaches, and I want the inmates to all come out of jail with a diploma.”Horan said jails should only be a place for violent offenders. “The way jails are run is all right as long as there are no addicts, and it’s just people who hurt other people.”
Downs said she isn’t particularly concerned with the county’s crime rate, but she is concerned with the amount of cases sheriff’s office detectives clear. She referred to the clearance rate as the “crime solving rate,” which she said is 15 percent.
“Our detectives are lacking in training and supervision and leadership,” she said. “If they can’t step it up after thorough training, they will be fired, and I will hire someone who can find a clue when 20 homeless people are murdered in the course of three months, and over 100 crimes involving deaths and missing persons have never had one suspect.”
Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Herrin said the office’s clearance rate is 22.4 percent, which she said is about average for all county police forces in the state.
“There are two ways to clear a case: by arrest, or ‘Cleared by Exception,’ which means an offender has been identified, but there is something beyond the agency’s control which keeps that offender from being arrested,” Herrin said by e-mail. “An example would be that the offender is dead, extradition is denied, or the case involves a juvenile offender who cannot be charged for some reason.”
Peryam said most crime in the Keys has “gone down almost every year over the last 18 years for a total of nearly 50 percent” reduction.
He said some petty crime, such as thefts from motor vehicles, thefts from buildings and bicycle thefts, has risen.
“A change in demographics may be part of this trend, and I am sure the economy and unemployment are also contributing factors, along with the rapid rise in gas prices,” Peryam said.
Davis acknowledged the relatively low crime rate in the Keys but said the 18-Mile Stretch “has become an expressway to crime in the Keys from Homestead and Florida City.”
He said setting up more cameras to document all vehicles entering and leaving the county at the bottom of the stretch “will do wonders to deter crime from the north and help identify suspects.”
Davis also suggested building coalitions and task forces with other police agencies, and more community policing, including more deputies getting off U.S. 1 and into neighborhoods.
And he said deputies in some cases need to “pay closer attention to their personal fitness to assure they are in proper physical condition to respond to an emergency when called upon,” Davis said.
Davis also advocates reducing pay gap between patrol officers and supervisors to help retain deputies.
Peryam said he would address recruitment and retention of deputies with a “hiring local” initiative, “making the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office a career agency — not a training ground. This will save taxpayer dollars.”