Sheriff's Office faces ongoing staffing challenges

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Providing law enforcement for Oklahoma's largest county is no joke when you're coping with COVID-19 symptoms and figuring out how to meet staffing challenges.

"I can't even smell Vicks," Osage County Sheriff Eddie Virden said last week, as he self-isolated for possible COVID-19. His wife had tested positive and he had symptoms.

Virden said Monday of this week he anticipated he would lose his chief deputy, Loren Vaughn, to a better-paying, less-dangerous job, and added that he figured he would be working to restructure his staff after emerging from COVID isolation.

But the staffing challenge is not new. Virden recently gave an example of what his deputies can face without warning. Virden and Deputy Shannon Bradford related the story of Bradford's encounter one Sunday morning with a man who had reportedly been standing in a road at Whippoorwill, north of Bowring, menacing people with a shovel.

Bradford, a day-shift sergeant, attempted to respond to the problem, but the man attacked him and a conflict ensued beyond the range of cellphones and walkie-talkies. Bradford pulled a Taser, thinking to subdue his assailant with it, but the man destroyed the Taser. Bradford fought, hand-to-hand, for more than 20 minutes with no chance for backup, worried he might be left with no choice but to kill the fellow to save his own life.

Eventually, a passerby -- a local resident who noticed what was going on -- came to Bradford's aid. No one died, but the incident took its toll on Bradford and his family.

“My wife’s already on me," Bradford said, acknowledging his wife would be happier if he found something safer to do. "I love this job. I love Osage County.”

Virden observes that the distances his deputies have to drive to respond to calls are great enough, and funding is limited enough, that his field staff can frequently do nothing other than simply react.

“We’re a reactive agency instead of proactive," Virden said. "The deputies are doing most of the investigations, except for major cases, on their own.”

Deputies can go to other types of law enforcement agencies and make more money in sign-on bonuses and salaries than they can make as county sheriff's office personnel, Virden said. He says the state of Oklahoma has to find a way to restructure the way it collects and distributes tax money if it intends to save rural communities.

“We’ve got to do something or all of rural Oklahoma is going to die," he said.

Virden does, however, give credit where it's due. He acknowledges that other county officials are doing what they can to help with the finances, and he credits Osage County residents with being very supportive of law enforcement.

“We’re luckier than most because our citizens still pretty much stand behind us,” Virden said. “We’re reaching out, trying to do everything we can – educating our citizens.”

He and Sheriff Scott Owen, of neighboring Washington County, recently organized a "citizens academy" to help residents of rural areas better prepare themselves to address threats to their safety until deputies can respond to calls. Virden said Monday that the academy was scheduled to conclude this week, and that he thought more than 60 persons (from Osage and Washington counties combined) had participated.

On the financial side of things, Osage County officials anticipated the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which began in July, could be a tough one. County commissioners encouraged all departments to restrain their spending, and County Clerk Shelia Bellamy and her staff worked to recoup from the federal government all the reimbursement funding they could through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The Sheriff's Office benefited from that effort, with some $900,000 of reimbursement money being earmarked for the sheriff's sales tax fund in the current fiscal year, and another $500,000-plus being reserved for the office in the future. 

Virden says he knows other county officials want to make the annual budget work for everyone.

“They are looking at the whole budget. They want to live within our means," he said. But he worries about the longer-term availability of resources to properly compensate his deputies, and to put enough personnel on the roads of Osage County to cut reaction times.

As he returns from isolation, or "COVID jail" as he calls it, Virden looks forward to being able to do some hiring, and to promote more experienced deputies into investigator slots.