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Blaine County Sheriff Candidates Spar
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Blaine County Sheriff Steve Harkins said he hopes to get more officers this year and may consider putting one or two in the schools.
   
Thursday, May 9, 2024
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

A debate between two men vying to be the Blaine County Sheriff’s Democratic nominee got a little heated during an hour-long candidates’ forum in the Minnie Moore Room of the Community Campus this week.

More than a 150 people packed the room, some sitting on the floor and some standing against the wall, to hear Blaine County Sheriff Steve Harkins square off against Morgan Ballis, a school resource officer at Wood River High School.

The event was sponsored by The Hunger Coalition, The Advocates and The Alliance, who provided pizza and soft drinks. Republican candidate Aaron Hughston was invited to speak but declined. He did, however, watch the two candidates as an audience member.

 
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Morgan Ballis, seen addressing the Blaine County Democrats at last week’s Clint and Michelle Stennett Social, said he would bring more agencies onto the narcotics team if he were sheriff.
 

Harkins told the audience of his 33-year career in law enforcement, which included a stint as detective during which he conducted hundreds of investigations—“the favorite part of my career.”

He served as Ketchum Police Chief before becoming Blaine County Sheriff eight years ago in 2016. In that capacity, he said, he oversees 70 employees, a $10 million budget and a detention center, which he remarked has the highest liability of any other facility in the county but has had no lawsuit payouts during his tenure.

“Few police and sheriff departments can say that,” he said.

Ballis, who won Hailey Police Officer of the Year in 2023, said he operates as emergency manager for a staff of 500 and 2,000 students. He noted that he had created a LGBTQ+ liaison position and that he was the only law enforcement officer in the state who showed up at the Capitol to dissuade legislators from allowing teachers to carry guns in school.

A native of Arizona who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, he got interested in emergency management because his mother was standing next to Gabby Giffords when the U.S. Congresswoman was shot during an assassination attempt. Ballis got a Master of Science degree in Homeland Security and Emergency Management from National University in San Diego and is working on a doctorate in Emergency Management.

He said he would serve the community by collaboratively building a team and a vision with nonprofits, working with community members to figure out how sexual assault and mental health crises can be prevented.

ON MENTAL HEALTH

Harkins noted that police see people at their worst when they’re dealing with crises.  His staff is working on Crisis Intervention Training so officers can give mental health crises with the same knowledge and  empathy that they would give to a physical injury.

Ballis agreed that it’s good to train officers to respond to suicide calls. But, he said, the sheriff’s department also needs to focus on prevention and mitigation: “I’ve been working in that area with kids and their families on the back end of tragedy. I want to build a system to address the real issue, not just respond to it.”

SEX TRAFFICKING

Harkins said that his department was deluged with phone calls from fearful parents after Ballis talked about sex trafficking while campaigning.

Ballis said that by definition sex trafficking involves the exchange of money, drugs and other things of value for sex.

But Harkins said he has heard of no reports of commercial sex trafficking, which typically involves kidnapping someone and taking them to another city to perform sex acts, in 30 years of policing in the valley.

“We have had no reports of commercial sex trafficking. We do have reports of rape, crimes against children…” he said, accusing Ballis of fearmongering.

IMMIGRANTS

Harkins said his department does not discriminate against immigrants, nor does it discriminate against anyone because of their race, religion or gender. He added that he and his staff encourage undocumented residents to ask for help and to report crimes without hesitation.

“We’re not going to ask you about your status,” he said. “I have no immigration authority. I can’t arrest anyone for being illegal, nor do I care.”

Ballis said he knows of no valley officers who have been discriminatory. But he said the valley needs a sheriff that’s accessible and quick to take questions from groups like the Hunger Coalition. Harkins replied that he has an open-door policy and often joins his men on the front lines.

“I think we have one of the most amazing sheriff’s offices here. That doesn’t come from a sheriff who is disengaged and not interacting with the community,” Harkins added.

Ballis said that a lot of traffic offenses among immigrants occur because they do not know better. Driver education tailored to them would help with that—they would, for instance, purchase insurance if they knew they had to.

Harkins agreed that some immigrants do not know the rules of the road nor how to drive in winter, but they drive because they need to drive in order to work. Education could help, he said.

TARGETING YOUNG PEOPLE

One person said that, as a young person he feels that he and his friends are targeted by the police. But Harkins said this department doesn’t target anyone. Officers have, however responded to some parties that have gotten out of hand.

“Cops show up. Kids run. That’s been going on 30 years,” he said. “We’ve gone into some homes that have been destroyed.”

Ballis said that building relationships and trust starts by having officers present. Carey School and Hemingway STEAM School have been asking for a school resource officer for years, he said: “As a sheriff I would work to put a school resource officer in those schools. It’s about creating equity.”

He suggested that the department take advantage of a grant to fund those officers.

Harkins replied that, while county commissioners “fund us well,” sometimes they are not able to fully fund the department’s request. He could get a $120,000 grant covering four years but would need three times more.

“I can’t pull a deputy on a patrol shift and put him in a school,” he added, saying that patrol officers are stretched given the growing population in the valley.

A CONVENIENT DEMOCRAT?

Ballis was asked by one audience member if it was true that he had switched parties to become a Democrat just two months earlier.

Ballis replied that he grew up a Republican but left the party in 2020 because he couldn’t support Trump, nor could he support what he saw as an attack on democracy on Jan. 6.

He registered in 2022 as unaffiliated but switched to the Democrat Party after a recent experience in which his family experienced a horrific loss and was forced to leave Idaho for Utah after his wife developed an infection that was transferred to their unborn child.

We “experienced firsthand the horrible laws that the Idaho Republicans in this state created. (We went) through the most traumatic experience of our life because of those laws,” he said. “I’m proud to be a Democrat. I’m proud to stand for the decisions that my wife gets to make with her doctor.”

HOW TO VOTE

The primary election will be held Tuesday, May 21. Early voting has already begun.

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