Patrick B. McGuigan, CapitolBeatOK.com
OKLAHOMA CITY – A professional association of law enforcement officers recently has come under fire for — members and association officials contend — enforcing the law.
The Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association (OSA) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit association whose mission is to represent elected sheriffs in all 77 counties in Oklahoma (https://www.oklahomasheriffs.org/).
Recent accusations of improprieties and public records requests have been directed at OSA. Last week, the Office of Attorney General Mike Hunter issued an opinion that OSA is subject to state openness law because they are “supported in part by public funds.” (http://newsok.com/oklahoma-sheriffs-association-subject-to-openness-laws-ag-says/article/5577871) Other fodder from the press has been directed at OSA’s role in the Warrant Collection Program.
Passed by the legislature in 2003, the Warrant Collection Program was designed to provide a collection effort on fines, fees and costs owed to state and county entities and to prevent defendants from being rearrested and placed in county jail where additional fines, fees and costs would be accrued.
A provision in the 2003 law gave individual sheriffs ability to turn the administrative duties associated with the Warrant Collection Program over to OSA.
The stated mission of OSA is to “maintain the Office of the Sheriff through training and education; developing laws and policies that promote public safety and; providing technical and informational support to assist the Sheriffs of Oklahoma in providing effective and quality law enforcement services to the citizens of the State of Oklahoma.”
As part of carrying out their stated mission of “providing technical and informational support,” OSA plays the role of mediator between citizens, court clerks and collections agencies. The program has recovered tens of millions of dollars for state and county agencies and resolving more than 200,000 outstanding warrants since 2010.
The Legislature amended the underlying law in 2005 and 2010. Funds collected benefit 58 entities and programs including, the Departments of Public Safety and Mental Health, victims compensation funds and public defenders.
“Criticism of the sheriffs association is misguided,” contends Rep. Tim Downing, R-Purcell. “OSA is vital resource to law enforcement in their mission to serve and protect Oklahomans.”
Since 2005, OSA has provided over 5,400 hours of training available to sheriffs and their departments in all 77 counties. Trainings offered by OSA vary in subject to cover the full range of duties incurred by the office of the sheriff and have included topics such as suicide prevention, livestock theft, gang trends, conforming with public records requests and technology updates to information sharing systems used by law enforcement agencies. In total, OSA officials say, the organization has offered over 250 different topics concerning the day-to-day operations of a sheriffs department.
In October, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed OSA members at their annual conference. Sessions said law enforcement nationwide is dealing with, among other issues, an increase in the violent crime rate, gangs, the opioid epidemic and threats of terrorism.
“With attacks coming from the state capitol and Washington, D.C., this isn’t the easiest time to be a peace officer in this country. The training and support offered by OSA helps all of our sheriffs better serve their constituencies,” said Pawnee County Sheriff and OSA Board President, Mike Waters.
Even as gossip and some controversy swirls around the sheriff’s association, OSA officials have said will continue to serve their purposes — some prescribed by law — to aid in the administrative duties and support the sheriffs of Oklahoma.
This month, OSA is offering three and a half days of education on awareness and response in regards to child sex trafficking. Also in the month of January, OSA is offering a chaplains’ academy. These trainings are available to all OSA members.
“Trainings like the ones OSA is offering in January are the type of thing that make OSA an asset to sheriffs and in turn, all Oklahomans,” Waters said.