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Another big race: Baxter versus O'Flynn for Monroe County Sheriff

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For local voters, this year's high-profile political race is probably for Rochester mayor. But the November 7 general election ballot includes one of the other most important offices in the county: that of Monroe County sheriff.

The job isn't for lightweights. Whoever is elected sheriff this year will oversee an organization that has about 1,100 employees and nearly a $150 million budget. And the sheriff's responsibilities go well beyond road patrols. The sheriff's office has law-enforcement jurisdiction over the entire county and provides it directly for 13 towns and four villages. The sheriff oversees the jail, the SWAT team (special weapons and tactics) and hostage negotiations, the scuba dive unit, foreclosure proceedings, crime scene analysis in many instances, and courthouse security.

This year, voters will have a somewhat unusual choice for sheriff: longtime Republican incumbent Patrick O'Flynn or his Democratic challenger, Todd Baxter. While O'Flynn can appear a bit corporate compared to the more gregarious Baxter, both men are well-known in the law enforcement community and have reputations as experienced leaders.

O'Flynn, who went into law enforcement straight out of high school as a deputy sheriff trainee, was made undersheriff in 1988, and is serving his 16th year as sheriff. Baxter spent 22 years with the Rochester Police Department, was police chief for the Town of Greece from 2010 to 2014, and more recently was executive director of the Veterans Outreach Center.

For many voters, the choice between O'Flynn and Baxter may be a tough one. Baxter was a longtime registered Republican, which is not unusual in law enforcement. Earlier this year, however, he switched parties, becoming a Democrat after talks he says he had with State Assembly Leader Joe Morelle and other local Democrats.

For hardcore Republicans who vote strictly along party lines, the choice for sheriff may be reflexive: stick with O'Flynn. But for those who have grown weary of incumbent candidates, Baxter may be an option. (Many area Republicans heaped praise on him when he took over what was by most accounts a dysfunctional police department in Greece.)

For some Democrats, the choice may be tricky. Neither O'Flynn nor Baxter is a progressive, by any means. (Baxter says he voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election.) But many Democrats could see Baxter as a serious challenge to O'Flynn and the Republican Party's long control of a key county office. And there have been signs that O'Flynn may, too. He recently backed out of a city neighborhood meeting where the two were scheduled to appear.

Baxter isn't naïve. He relishes the idea of being the underdog in this race, something he says energizes him. But he knows he will still have a tough time convincing some local Dems that he stands with them.

"I'm very comfortable with the decision," he says. "I'm a conservative-leaning Democrat, and my response to people who question whether I'm really a Democrat or not, I tell them: come sit down over cup of coffee with me and let's talk."

Baxter, of course, is not the first local candidate to switch political parties. Many Dems were annoyed, though hardly shocked, when Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley switched her registration to Republican. Baxter says he decided to change parties because he became disillusioned with the Republican Party he had been with for many years. He says he's not so different from liberals who say they lost their enthusiasm for the Democratic Party and didn't vote for Hillary Clinton.

Baxter says he voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election because he thought Trump was a highly successful business man who would shake things up in Washington. But, he says, he's disappointed with some of what Trump has done as president, especially some of his tweets involving police work and North Korea.

"When he tweeted about roughing people up and telling officers not to worry about protecting someone's head as you're putting them in the car, I'm thinking: We've been working so freakin' hard to build public trust, what's he doing?" Baxter says. "I found that offensive."

And with a son in the military, he said, Trump's handling of North Korea is troubling.

Ultimately, Baxter says, he doesn't think political affiliations matter in carrying out the duties of the sheriff's department.

"At the end of the day, I'm not making policy," says Baxter. "I'm enforcing the law. My job is to keep everyone safe, not just some people."

The biggest issue in the sheriff's race, he says, is who can provide better leadership, and on that front, he says, incumbent O'Flynn has failed. O'Flynn sees things differently. His experience, he says, is central to his bid for re-election. And he argues that running a local police department doesn't compare to running an organization the size of the of the county sheriff's department and a jail with as many as 1,000 inmates.

Still, O'Flynn's tenure has certainly included some controversies. One example: negotiations over his salary. In 2011, in a last-ditch move just before the County Legislature voted on the budget, Republicans approved an annual pay raise for O'Flynn that increased his salary to $136,700, from $123,030. A few years later, he sought another pay raise; this time for an additional $37,000.

In a recent interview with City, O'Flynn dismissed concerns about his salary. He said he had gone without an annual pay raise for 14 years.

"It became a political football that both sides of the aisle were playing," he said. "When it comes to my salary, I don't have any control over it."

That's partly true; the County Legislature approves the budget. But critics say O'Flynn should have made his case for the raise before the public instead of relying on political allies.

Baxter says O'Flynn fought for his salary increases but didn't put up much of a fight for salary increases for his deputies, who have been working without a contract since 2012. The union leaders representing jail deputies finally reached an agreement with the county's negotiators after several attempts, but their members didn't agree to it, and negotiations are underway again.

Negotiations for road deputies didn't go well, either. Arbitration resulted in a new contract earlier this year, and 41 deputies took early retirement. While O'Flynn says he doesn't have a say in contract negotiations – because they are between the union leaders and the county – Baxter says at the very least, O'Flynn owed it to the public to explain how losing 41 deputies would impact public safety.

"We lost a huge amount of experience and manpower when that happened," Baxter says. Just saying it won't have an impact on public safety isn't realistic, Baxter says.

Another Flynn administration controversy: a guard at the Monroe County Correctional Facility was found guilty of sexually abusing several inmates. The offenses, which included rape, occurred between 2010 and 2012. Some of the women later sued the county.

O'Flynn says that the incident occurred because there were places in the facility that could not be monitored through video surveillance and that the problem has been corrected. But critics have questioned how that type of misconduct could have occurred for so long without department leaders knowing.

Another concern for some critics is the sheriff department's involvement with immigration. Though O'Flynn says the department has little to do with it, there was some concern about the sheriff's decision to join the Secure Communities Initiative, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement program.

When participating police and sheriff departments arrest someone, they send the person's fingerprints to ICE to verify their immigration status. ICE can ask local law-enforcement agencies to detain the individual until it can be determined if they are wanted in connection to a crime.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has been critical of the program, arguing that it promotes racial profiling and intimidates immigrants and discourages them from reporting crimes. The NYCLU describes the program as an ineffective dragnet that mostly snares non-criminals.

But O'Flynn says that his department, like most law enforcement agencies, has had extensive anti-racism and cultural-bias training to prevent racial profiling, and he says the training is continuing.

In a recent CITY interview, O'Flynn was also asked how his department interacts with transgender individuals, another sensitive social issue, since a person who is in transition may look and identify themselves differently than how they appear, for example, on a driver's license. They may also use different pronouns. But O'Flynn said when his department interacts with a transgender person, they refer to the person's gender in accordance with whatever gender their legal identification, such as a driver's license, indicates.

However, if an arrest is made, the transgender person is confined separately from other inmates for their own protection, O'Flynn said.

Baxter has also charged that O'Flynn's response to the opioid crisis is a sign of lack of leadership. Baxter says the sheriff's department has been largely reactive, that it took months to get reliable data on opioid abuse. Even though the opioid crisis has made national headlines for more than a year, Baxter says it took too long to determine that Monroe County had 169 opioid-related deaths in 2016.

He says the issue needs someone locally to spearhead awareness and better coordinate prevention programs. Baxter says he would hold frequent public briefings, and he has proposed creating preventive programs, such as one where residents could schedule someone to come to their home and pickup unused prescription drugs. And he proposed an interdisciplinary task force to root out dealer networks for opioids and heroin coming into the area.

But O'Flynn strongly disagrees. He says the sheriff's department has been working on anti-drug education in schools and community centers for years, and his department works with the courts to help get addicts into treatment programs. O'Flynn says that inmates with chemical dependency problems are offered Vivitrol, a drug that reduces the addict's cravings for opioids.

Critics argue that addiction is a disease that should be treated by health-care workers who understand it and not by law-enforcement or the justice system. They say the real issue is limited access to affordable treatment programs, something that neither O'Flynn nor Baxter can do much about.

Staff writer Jeremy Moule contributed to this reporting.

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