An incumbent sheriff and his challenger took turns claiming to be the better man for the job Wednesday night during a forum to help voters determine who should be elected Nov. 6 to hold Kenosha County’s top law enforcement position.
While the candidates took turns answering questions, it was challenger David Zoerner, a Democrat and a sergeant in the department, who took Republican Sheriff David Beth to task for his handling of the Andrew Obregon case, alluding to the personal relationship Beth had with the family.
Obregon was sentenced last year to life in prison for the murder of Tywon Anderson three years ago. Obregon spent three weeks on the run as a fugitive and, while eluding authorities, he beat a woman whose home he broke into and stole her vehicle.
In his closing remarks, Zoerner said the woman who Obregon attacked was in the audience during the forum, which was sponsored by Forward Kenosha at the Parkway Chateau.
“(Beth) talked about Andy Obregon on television. He said Andy’s not a threat to the community,” Zoerner said. “Andy was a terrible threat to the community and we were pursuing him for homicide. He shot a man in the head.”
Zoerner then apologized to the woman, who had tracked him down at the county fair. “I’m sorry you had so many surgeries on your eye and lost vision in the eye,” he said. “I felt he was a threat the entire time. To say he wasn’t a threat is ridiculous.”
Beth did not address Zoerner’s comment, but spoke about his responsibilities as sheriff.
Beth talked about his involvement in the application for grants for school safety and law enforcement services the department performs for four communities that have saved them millions of dollars.
“As you can see for the last hour and half, the difference is night and day. Experience sits on this side of the table,” Beth said.
During the question-and-answer session facilitated by moderator Len Iaquinta, Beth said the county has benefited from holding Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees for the federal government, receiving some $85 million. He said it is proper for the county to be involved holding ICE detainees, who he added were in the county’s detention center for crimes they’ve committed and were awaiting deportation.
“Is it a business? It is,” he said. “We treat them with respect. They actually have more opportunities than our local population does.”
Zoerner said he’d like to know how the money was “broken down” as to whether it was all profit or if there are also expenses associated with taking them in.
“Not all of them are criminals being deported,” Zoerner said.
Beth later said the $85 million has paid for more deputies and correctional officers, and has “paid the bills” to keep his department running. As a result, the department has worked with the County Board and County Executive Jim Kreuser to keep tax increases low, averaging a 1.7 percent levy hike annually.
The candidates addressed other issues, including what they would do to improve race relations.
Beth said the department has a great relationship with minorities, but it has struggled to hire more law enforcement officers who are minorities.
“People would rather work where they’re living,” he said.
He said the department of 400 employees, which includes 130 sworn officers, receives very few complaints. He said 60 percent of the citations given out this year involved individuals who were white, while the remaining were other races.
In addition, the department has adopted two central city schools, Frank and Wilson, with high minority populations.
Zoerner said law enforcement agencies are supposed to be representative of the communities they serve. He said as sheriff he would involve community agencies and faith-based organizations — including CUSH, the NAACP, and the Boys and Girls Club — and build “sustainable and collaborative” relationships.
Zoerner said law enforcement needs more specific training, including the type that involves role-playing so everyone understands and experiences what implicit bias or racism is.
“Getting that kind of training into in-service training is very difficult because it takes money,” he said. However, the department needs to make a commitment to make it happen.
Beth said during protests outside the sheriff’s department when there were police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., he intermingled with the protesters and brought them carrot cakes. At another protest he handed out hot cocoa and held a sign noting that “police are people, too,” he said.
At one of the rallies he ran into one of one of the students he once taught when he was a DARE officer and said it was important to be part of the community.
The two candidates also answered questions about school safety and whether they felt teachers should be armed with weapons. It was an issue the two agreed on.
Zoerner said he was not entirely in favor of it but would make an exception for someone who is “highly trained.”
For example, he noted there is a teacher at Wilmot who was a combat officer. Zoerner said, however, he would prefer a trained law enforcement officer to do the job.
Beth, whose wife is a teacher, said she’d be in panic. He said that a person like his wife should never carry a gun in school.
He said he’d be fine with a retired law enforcement officer or someone who was highly trained.
“There would have to be a screening process. It couldn’t just be anyone, but I don’t know what that process would be,” he said. “Carrying a weapon isn’t something any law enforcement officer takes lightly.”
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