Jackson County Executive Frank White said the county prosecutor’s office should consider having Sheriff Mike Sharp removed from office, The Star has learned, for refusing to send deputies to investigate anything other than serious felonies committed at the county jail.
In an email exchange with White’s second in command, chief of staff Caleb Clifford, an aide to Prosecutor Jean Peters told Clifford he should put in writing “your verbal suggestion that the Jackson County Prosecutor file a quo warranto against the Jackson County Sheriff” before that removal action would even be considered.
White’s office fell short of making a formal request, but it did provide a legal opinion from the county counselor’s office this week saying that a case could be made that Sharp had “abrogated his duty” by refusing to enforce the law inside the jail.
According to the opinion obtained through an open records request, County Counselor W. Stephen Nixon wrote White that “it’s our view that a colorable case is presented that the sheriff has forfeited his office by virtue of his announced policy of limited response.”
Nixon wrote that the removal action could be taken by the prosecutor or attorney general, or through appointment of a special county counselor if those other officials failed to take action.
Sharp told The Star that he was not worried about losing his job. He said he was well within his rights to change his policy on responding to crimes within the jail, saying corrections officers had the power to make criminal referrals to Baker and his deputies’ time was better spent elsewhere.
When serious crimes occur, his people will be there, he said.
“We’re not going to abandon the jail,” he said.
Sharp had announced the change after a meeting of the Jackson County Legislature earlier this month, where White rejected a suggestion that he seek help from the sheriff’s department in maintaining order at the jail. White said sheriff’s deputies weren’t trained as jailers.
In an interview Friday, Baker said she did not want to get in the middle of a political argument that could be avoided if there were better communication between her fellow Democratic officeholders.
“I am just very disappointed in anyone seeking to use this issue as a political wedge,” she told The Star regarding any effort to remove Sharp. “The bigger issue is not this. This is foolishness and one we should step away from. We have a jail that is in a serious crisis, and we need to move our attention and action back to the crisis rather than creating new crises.”
Clifford denied Friday that he lobbied for Sharp’s removal, but instead only presented Baker’s office with a legal opinion that a removal action might be appropriate. He provided The Star with a copy of his email exchange with Baker’s aide, in which he rejected her statement that he had suggested Sharp’s removal verbally.
But the aide disagreed with his interpretation of their conversation and insisted that any future communication on the matter be done strictly in writing.
Baker’s remarks and Clifford’s account of the events came as news broke that an inmate of the Jackson County Detention Center had died overnight Thursday after being strapped in a restraint chair for more than two hours. Authorities did not know what led to the man’s death.
The detention center has been a source of controversy and concern within county government since July 2015, when four guards allegedly beat a prisoner so severely that he suffered broken ribs, a punctured lung and other injuries.
Those correctional officers were charged with federal civil rights violations this spring after an FBI investigation. A host of other issues have arisen in the past two years. Inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults and the smuggling of contraband cellphones and drugs into the facility have raised concerns about lax security there. Poor sanitation has also been alleged in lawsuits.
The cascade of concerns caused the county Legislature to commission two studies to evaluate shortcomings in the detention center’s physical condition and operations. The reports are due out next month.
White’s comments on jail issues at a legislative meeting in Independence on July 10 triggered the series of events that culminated with Clifford contacting Baker’s office about possible removal proceedings, which in legal jargon is called a “quo warranto” action.
For a legislature that rarely has substantive public discussions about policy issues, it was an unusually long, candid and, at times, heated exchange between White and Legislators Crystal Williams, Dan Tarwater and Scott Burnett.
White bristled when Williams said he was not keeping legislators informed about developments within the jail. Rather than get a heads-up from his office, she said, she learned of the recent assault on a female corrections officer by an inmate and a massive search of the jail for contraband through the news media.
She and other observers, including Sharp and Baker, thought White downplayed the seriousness of the issues facing the county Corrections Department when he repeated a claim he’s made before, in a meeting with The Star’s editorial board and since at a luncheon speech at the downtown public library.
“Things happen at the jail a lot, and it doesn’t make our jail any worse than any other jail,” he told legislators. “It’s just that prior to 2015, nothing was reported that was going on in the jail.”
He said the county’s “transparency” about the jail made things seem worse than they are.
When Tarwater suggested that White might seek help from the sheriff’s department in maintaining order at the jail, White rejected the notion, saying sheriff’s deputies weren’t trained as jailers.
Sharp took umbrage and sent out a memo the next day telling deputies that they would no longer investigate minor assaults and other low-level crimes within the facility. He called the director of the jail to inform him of the change that day, as well.
Clifford later spoke with Jennifer Dameron, director of intergovernmental affairs and policy in the prosecutor’s office, to discuss the policy change and bring up the subject of possibly removing Sharp, according to Dameron’s July 19 email to him under the heading “your memo and suggested action.” That memo from the county counselor’s office outlined Missouri’s statute on removal.
Sharp said he had every right to change his policy on responding to offenses committed inside the jail. He told The Star that he’d only been trying to help out the detention center when, in the wake of the July 2015 assault, he began sending his deputies to take reports on every assault within the detention center, no matter how minor.
Prior to that date, his department was rarely called in. But in the past two years, deputies responded nearly every time a prisoner even spit on a guard, Sharp said.
His department investigated 186 assaults at the jail in 2016 alone.
Sharp said he decided to change that policy after White’s remarks.
“They said they had it under control,” Sharp said. “We’re going to handle the Part One crimes only from now on.”
By that he means major crimes like rape, murder, arson and violent assaults that lead to serious injury. He said the jail’s staff already has the authority to investigate and make criminal complaints to the prosecutor for less serious offenses. His people’s time is better spent elsewhere, he said, adding that “it was tying up two deputies on every one of these calls.”
He said no one at the county executive’s office called to discuss his change in policy prior to Clifford contacting Baker’s office to suggest that Sharp’s move was grounds for removal from office.
White issued a statement Friday saying he disagreed with Sharp’s position on responding to crimes at the jail.
“I am deeply troubled by the Sheriff’s actions,” White said. “His directive is detrimental to safety and security, not only for our Corrections staff and inmates, but also our community. The Sheriff’s failure to fully perform his duties and uphold the oath of office is unacceptable.”
He said the detention center will continue calling the sheriff’s department first when offenses occur. If the agency refuses, the Kansas City Police Department will be called.