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Voting for Kent County Sheriff: Stelma feels "Fortunate race has not been an issue"

This November, Kent County voters will elect a Sheriff, who oversees the security of the county courts and the jail in Grand Rapids. This article is the fourth in a series of six in which each candidate sat down for an in-depth interview.
The exercise area at the Kent County Correctional Facility, which houses an average of 1058 inmates a day.

The exercise area at the Kent County Correctional Facility, which houses an average of 1058 inmates a day. /Amy Carpenter-Leugs

Kent County Jail -- A statistical look

Highlights from the 2015 Kent County Corrections Statistics:


Total Bookings: 24,693.

Average Daily Inmate Population: 1058



White: 48 percent

Black: 42.3 percent

Hispanic: 9.7 percent



Male: 74 percent

Female: 26 percent



Those in their 20s and 30s account for 65 percent of the inmate population.


Average Inmate Stay: 11 months


Recidivism: 78 percent of inmates are returning



In 2008 only 40 percent of inmates listed an occupation upon booking.

In 2015 over 51 percent of inmates were employed at time of incarceration.


Mental Health:

Nearly 7,800 inmates were assessed by mental health staff in 2015.

30 percent of the population is on some type of psychotropic medication.

Republican candidate and incumbent Kent County Sheriff, Lawrence Stelma.

Republican candidate and incumbent Kent County Sheriff, Lawrence Stelma.

Here are the first parts of Michael Scruggs' and Lawrence Stelma's interviews.

The issue of race

When asked if the question of race affects the election, Stelma didn’t think it was an issue. “We have a longstanding history of treating people humanely and with respect and dignity regardless of race. We expect that and demand that from the staff on both sides of the house. I think I’m blessed and very fortunate that race has not been an issue in this community.”

As far as the Sheriff’s efforts to recruit a more diverse staff, Stelma said, “I think you’ll hear from most police chiefs that we don’t want to hire based on race. We would like a more diverse pool [of candidates], a pool that looks more like our community. But there’s a huge disconnect by people of different races as to considering law enforcement an honorable profession. It has to start in the home. Parents of all races have to encourage their children [to believe] that public safety is an honorable profession. I don’t think that is coming through at home very well. As an example, we had a Latino young man who wanted to go into law enforcement, and he told one of our local chiefs that if he ever told his parents, they would disown him. That’s a tragedy.”  

Successes and areas in need of improvement

“In the corrections arena, we do extremely well with programming and anti-recidivism efforts. Some programs are offered by outside agencies -- some are paid for by us. We have a [Biblical] Life Principles Pod [a ‘God Pod’ offered by Forgotten Man Ministries]. We have pods for domestic violence, programs for substance abuse, for mental health. We now have a charter school through Lighthouse Academy. They offer G.E.D.s to individuals, who aren’t a fit for traditional schooling, and we've made a big deal of it -- we have a graduation ceremony. Many of those individuals go on to contribute to society," said Stelma.

Stelma continued,“If there’s an area that we struggle in, it’s in recruiting officers. That’s typical of most correctional agencies right now. We have a low turnover rate, but recruiting good and diverse officers is difficult.”

“On the enforcement side, we have a great enforcement unit, a great investigative unit. Their training is top-drawer. Their use of technology changes all the time,” says Stelma. For instance, Rockford High received bomb threats in the fall of 2015, and “we traced those people as far as England…and charged people on the East Coast for it," said Stelma. "But again we struggle in recruitment, as most agencies do. We have embarked this year on putting together a pretty aggressive scholarship program for people to go to the [police] academies. We think if we can get young people interested with a scholarship, there’ll be a focus on coming to the Sheriff’s office.”

Diversity and inclusion

“We have [cultural] diversity training as part of [new-hire] orientation for every officer. It’s also built into the rotation for yearly ongoing training," Stelma said.

When asked for comment, Darius Quinn, Kent County Human Resources Manager, added, "After 15 years of formalized diversity and inclusion efforts, this past January Kent County hit the reset button by engaging in new strategic planning to move us forward in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion. Working with the Cultural Intelligence Center and Dr. Sandra Upton, we are making plans to focus on leadership, organizational culture and accountability in these areas for all Kent Count employees. Undersheriff Michelle Young has been an integral part of the planning process and has been at every meeting since they began in January. She is very much on-board."

Stelma continued, "The county has a great Employee Assistance Program. If we treat issues in [officers’] lives, they won’t be acted out with a suspect or defendant. After every critical incident, we mandate [the EAP counseling]. Now that we’ve done it for so long, seven or eight years, it’s expected.” 

Stelma also asserted that conversations with the African-American community and the Latino community are ongoing. “We work with people from the black community, people from the Latino community and the collegiate community, which is a growing community. I sit on the Children’s Assessment board with [members from the] Latino [community]. I think we have good working relationships with them. Do we always agree? No. But Joe Jones [president of the Grand Rapids Urban League, Second Ward City Commissioner] has my cell phone number. Paul Mayhue [former Kent County Commissioner, president of the Kent County Black Caucus] has my phone number. They’re not afraid to call me and talk to me. I value those relationships with the African-American community and the Latino community, and with our colleges.”

In the next and last part of the series, Stelma talks about school resource officers and their influence on community relationships and the heroin epidemic in Kent County.

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