The Rapidian

Voting for Kent County Sheriff: Scruggs talks criminal justice system reforms

On November 8, 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 fifth in a series of six in which each candidate sat down for an in-depth interview.
Scruggs receiving the 2014 NAACP Walter Berman Voting Rights & Political Representation award.

Scruggs receiving the 2014 NAACP Walter Berman Voting Rights & Political Representation award. /James Vaughn

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Michael Scruggs, Democratic Candidate for Kent County Sheriff, has talked in part one and part two about the racial history behind his campaign and the changes he would like to make within the Sheriff's office. In this final portion of his interview, Scruggs shared how he'd like to influence the conversation about the criminal justice system.

Criminal justice conversations -- Using the statutory position of sheriff

“If elected, I can use the statutory position of Sheriff to talk to judges and prosecutors to restrain sentencing, as it fits the individual situation. We can separate the hardened criminals from the folks that just made a stupid mistake-for those we could ticket rather than sending them to jail. If they go to jail, they might lose their jobs. If that does happen, we can help them get situated once they leave the system. They need have a job, pay their rent, before they can pay their fines and their child support.”

Scruggs also hopes to address the issues that create tension in relationships between the community and law enforcement. “If I’m elected, I know this won’t be easy, but I want to help both the community and law enforcement learn the difference between ‘snitching and telling.’”

Among certain communities, Scruggs says, people are scared to tell law enforcement what they’ve seen when a crime has occurred. Then law enforcement doesn’t have the tools to keep that community safe. “It’s not snitching to tell officers what you’ve seen.”

At the same time, continues Scruggs, “Police hold too closely to the blue code. If they see a buddy do something that’s not right, they need to speak up. We need to find a mechanism so that in law enforcement, we can break that blue code. Rank-and-file needs to be held accountable.

On recent awareness of police shootings

“People talk about police shootings now. I grew up in Chicago, and these things have always happened. But now people might have a camera on it. So we need to let officers know that they need to do the right thing, even when their buddy isn’t. Supervisors need to make time to ride along with their officers-they need to see how the officer talks to people, and how he is received by the community. They need to see if he writes more tickets than others. They need to do that data analysis. They need to call up people and ask, 'how did the officer treat you?' I want to use the statutory position of Sheriff to talk about something nobody else talks about. I want to talk about the union. The police union is the strongest in the world. I support unions and collective bargaining. But at some point we need to advocate for people who are getting hurt in questionable shootings, while police are protected from accountability.”

The problem of ticketing

“I’d also like to see the cities in the county find some common denominators that we all can work with. In our county, we have differences among law enforcement agencies. When you pass from one perimeter to the other, laws change. If a guy has his music blasting, that’s okay in Grand Rapids. When he crosses into East Grand Rapids, he’s in trouble. We need to get away from writing tickets that are harassing people. We don’t need to go looking for trouble. Especially if you’re doing that to make money.”

“If we are to go forward as a community, law enforcement should always reflect the diversity of the community. Where Kent County falls short in diversity is that we don’t do the recruiting that’s necessary. We need to reach out to other communities and steal some of their good help. We need to bring in African-Americans and others who understand the culture.”

When asked about the current heroin/opioid epidemic and medication-assisted treatment to inmates, Scruggs said, “In the case of heroin, there is a mental and physical dependence. We want to make sure we’re getting treatment and the best medical technology to those individuals that need medication. We want to hold them accountable as well, there are legalities. This is why I want a blue-ribbon committee that includes those from law enforcement to look at issues like this.”

Scruggs concluded, “I don’t have a background in law enforcement, but I can draw on the experience of others who are already very good at their jobs. This can move the Sheriff department forward where it needs to go.”

In the last part of the series, the Rapidian interviews Scruggs' opponent in the upcoming election, current Kent County Sheriff, Lawrence Stelma.

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