Jackson County Executive Frank White said Monday that he had no intention of unseating Sheriff Mike Sharp over a memo that steered deputies away from responding to minor crimes at the county jail.
Rather, White said, he simply requested an opinion from the county counselor, who wrote that Sharp had “abrogated his duty” by refusing to enforce the law inside the jail beyond serious felonies.
In that legal opinion, obtained by The Star 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.”
But White said after a meeting of the Jackson County Legislature on Monday that he had neither the power nor the desire to lead a campaign that would remove Sharp from office.
“Mike and I have been friends for a long time,” he said, repeating several times that they were essentially political allies.
Instead, he said the memo from Nixon was the counselor’s legal opinion, not a reflection of any desire by White to take down the sheriff for limiting the kinds of cases that he deemed worthy of deputies’ time.
In a July 2015 assault at the jail, four guards were accused of beating a prisoner so severely that he sustained broken ribs, a punctured lung and other injuries. After that incident, Sharp began sending deputies in response to every report of assault at the jail. White said that had been a departure from years of practice.
Inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults along with the smuggling of cellphones and drugs into the jail have raised concerns about lax security there. Poor sanitation has also been alleged in lawsuits.
In a July 10 meeting of the county Legislature, White took fire from the board on the jail’s lingering problems. The county executive said that the sheriff’s deputies lacked the training of jailers.
That upset Sharp. The next day, he sent out a memo telling deputies their role was no longer to investigate minor incidents at the jail. Instead, he said, they should limit their investigations at the jail to “Part One crimes,” such as rape, murder, arson and violent assaults that lead to serious injury.
That would ultimately trigger an email conversation between White’s chief of staff, Caleb Clifford, and an aide to Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker. In that exchange, Baker’s aide 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.
Quo warranto is legalese for possible removal of someone from public office — in this case, looking at ousting Sharp for a memo suggesting he wouldn’t be enforcing all laws in the jail.
Clifford, in a subsequent email to the prosecutor’s office on July 19, wrote: “I apologize if I said anything that led you to believe that I was making a suggestion. I would like to state clearly that I did not intend to do so and am not doing so now. I fully understand that the responsibility for making such a determination rests with the County Prosecutor and Attorney General.”
On Monday, White said he simply wants “the jail to be safe.” For now, he said, all crimes at the jail are being reported and investigated either by the Kansas City Police Department or county deputies.