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McMullen versus Loar: Mano-a-mano

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of August 9, 2012)
Photo of McMullen and Loar.

The most hotly contested race of this August’s election is the battle between Sheriff Deryl Loar in the role of calm, well-spoken chief who makes tough decisions in hard times, and challenger Bill McMullen who casts himself as the dedicated deputy’s deputy determined to return hope to the rank and file.

The two men both sought the office four years ago, with Loar prevailing in a three-person race. This time around, former Lt. McMullen retired to go mano-a-mano with Loar, and the race has torn the Sheriff’s Office asunder, with many of the road patrol deputies backing McMullen.

The two candidates can hardly agree on anything, including crime rates – Loar says they’re down, McMullen says they’re up. And with supporters of both peddling vicious rumors about the other, and third parties including unions weighing in, the race is getting nastier by the day.

The really interesting question is how each of the contenders would govern after this ugly fight. How will Deryl Loar go back to managing a quasi-military agency after the majority of his deputies have actively fought to oust him?  Asked this question, Loar said he believes in leading and forgiving.

For McMullen, would he clean house of all of Loar's captains and his inner circle (communications director Jeff Luther, legal counsel Jim Harpring, comptroller Harry Hall and Undersheriff Bud Spencer), who have been going everywhere with Loar on the campaign trail?

McMullen said he would not clean house – that he has “great respect” for most of Loar’s administrators.

In the back-and-forth of the campaigns, stark differences have emerged on four main issues:  cutting the budget, the treatment and monitoring of deputies, questions about public records, and covering patrol zones.

- Issue #1, cutting the budget:  

Loar takes credit for cutting $5 million out of the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office budget – in response to reduced funding – while avoiding laying off a single deputy during his nearly four years in office. McMullen counters that avoiding lay-offs hasn’t done much good because morale is still so bad.

“A good deputy is a happy deputy,” said McMullen, “And Deryl Loar has an agency full of very unhappy deputies.”

“If I could have given them a three, four, five percent raise, I’d be a hero,” said Loar. “But the budget wouldn’t allow it.”

“If the budget is so tight, why did the sheriff spend $187,000 on an air-conditioned inmate bus and $200,000 on a mobile crime lab?” asked McMullen.

“The crime bus will save money because it allows for more inmates to be transported at the same time, which means fewer trips,” said Loar. “The crime lab was a multi-agency purchase, which included the Vero Beach Police Department, Sebastian and Fellsmere, as well as grants.”

Furthermore, said McMullen, Loar shouldn’t take credit for cutting the budget, because the County Commission did that.

“True,” said Loar, “but that’s splitting hairs because I anticipated the cuts and modified  the business model to fit them.”

- Issue #2, the treatment and monitoring of deputies:

Loar said he has had the courage to make deputies more accountable to the rule of law. McMullen says he’s all for following the law, but Loar needs to think more about teaching, training and supporting his deputies instead of disciplining them.

“His punishments are too punitive,” said McMullen. “The low morale is about more than money.”

“I believe in forgiveness and progressive discipline,” said Loar. “But when a deputy steps out of line and it becomes a pattern, we can’t ignore it. You have to police the police.”

McMullen countered: “People make mistakes because they’re human.”

- Issue #3, questions about public records:

McMullen said Loar turned a blind eye to higher-ups who illegally altered public records.

Road patrol officers do not cover every zone in the county 24/7 because of a shortage and how shifts are set up. But officers plugged names into open zones after the fact to make it appear as if the coverage was more extensive, McMullen said, picking up on a 32963 investigation.

Some of the deputies listed were either on vacation, sick leave or desk patrol and did not patrol. Also, questions arose when the same information differed from list to list.

“Sloppy record keeping, not intended to deceive,” said Loar. “We made mistakes because things are so fluid and moving so fast from list to list. We will pay closer attention in the future because of it.”

McMullen and his supporters counter that if it were only sloppiness, mistakes would have occurred across the board, not just in the open zones where patrol coverage is an issue.

“I didn’t fill out the information and would need to know more about exactly how it happened before I say more,“ said Loar.

Should McMullen prevail on Tuesday, it will be interesting to see how or even if he disciplines those involved in the records scandal.

- Issue #4: Road patrol shifts:

At the core of McMullen’s dissatisfaction with Loar is the issue of road patrol shifts.

Before Loar became sheriff in 2009, road patrol deputies worked three 12-hour shifts over three days. If they were needed for court or training during their time off, they got paid time and a half.

Loar changed their schedules to four 10-hour shifts over four days, which cut down on their opportunities for time and a half. It also cut down on deputies‘ ability to supplement their incomes with second jobs, as well as the amount of time they could spend with their families.

McMullen said Loar’s changes caused more of a gap in coverage, putting law enforcement officers and the public at greater risk. Patrol cars in an area for a greater amount of time deter crime, he contends. 

“Almost all of America uses the 12-hour shifts because it means more manpower on the streets more of the time.”

Loar said his plan saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, which was required by budget cuts, and that deputies are always ready to get to a hot spot when needed.

“If his plan works so well, why do we now have five unions representing the sheriff’s office?” asked McMullen. “Doesn’t the increase in union representation suggest deputies are very unhappy with how things are working?”

Loar responded: “The police unions set up expectations early on that things will improve. But the fact is that improvements require money and the reduction in tax dollars won’t allow them. I hope I’m around when the economic situation improves.  But in the meantime, I’d like to know specifically how McMullen is going to do things differently – grow the office – without more money.”

“By grow the office, I mean career-track planning and professional development – education offered at Indian River State College to improve morale and prepare our deputies to better themselves and move up,” McMullen countered. 

Darren Mingear is director of the Region 11 Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission that funds the courses offered to law enforcement at Indian River State College.  As such, he is very careful not to take sides in any sheriff’s race.

But he reluctantly admitted he was unclear on how offering the courses would mean “growing the office,” as McMullen suggested.

“A lot of deputies already take these courses,” he said. “In the past year, we had 600 enrolled over four counties, and Indian River deputies were as well represented as anyone else,” he said.