MARYVILLE, Mo. — Nodaway County Sheriff Randy Strong is seeking re-election by touting his accomplishments over the past four years.
When he ran for sheriff in 2016, candidate Strong laid out two major goals: resurrect the Northwest Missouri Major Case Squad, and push for consolidated 911 dispatch operations. Four years later, he says both of those measurable goals have been successfully accomplished.
As a Maryville Public Safety officer, Strong was a member of the first incarnation of the Major Case Squad, which he said had a 100 percent success rate, but fizzled out by around 2012.
The squad, made up of representatives of regional law enforcement agencies — including assistance from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the FBI and crime scene help from the St. Joseph Police Department — deploys to major crimes, particularly homicides, in the area to help provide access to resources and increase the efficiency of the investigation.
“One hundred percent successful, usually clearing cases up within 24 hours, often with a confession from the killer or the rapist,” Strong said. “So, it was a good formula.”
Consequently, he made it a priority to remake the group when he became sheriff.
In 2017, Strong and other northwest Missouri law enforcement leaders did just that.
Prior to the squad, Strong said, there were “too many people showing up” and stepping on each other’s toes during major investigations in northwest Missouri that necessitated participation and cooperation from multiple agencies.
“You don’t always need it, but when it’s there, it’s good to know that you’ve got that resource there.”
A far loftier goal was finally putting into operation a consolidated 911 dispatch center, which Strong made an important plank in his 2016 campaign platform.
In the 1990s, again while he was a Maryville Public Safety officer, and later after the turn of the century, Strong said that he lamented the breakdown of multiple discussions about combining dispatch operations. Many of them failed due to an inability to agree on who would pay for what, and where the center would be.
“One of my goals was to, when I got in, try to jumpstart the 911 consolidation because I knew the equipment was failing, and I knew we couldn’t get it fixed,” Strong said.
In early 2017, just after city voters renewed a half-cent capital improvement sales tax earmarked for what became the R. Keith Wood Public Safety Facility, Strong was indeed one of the consolidation plan’s most vociferous supporters, telling The Forum at the time that a consolidated dispatch center would reduce response times, and that he was confident an agreement would be reached.
Late last year, the Nodaway County Commission and the city of Maryville did finally knock down the final obstacles and shook hands on an agreement to combine dispatch operations at the new public safety building.
On Sept. 30, Northwest Regional Communications went into service, and the benefits were immediate, perhaps nowhere more evidently than in the jail, which had previously held the county dispatch operations with jailers doing double duty as dispatchers, trying to be heard over occasionally rowdy inmates.
“You know, it worked back when they first built that jail,” Strong said. “Kinda. Sorta. But not now, our call volume is too massive, the distraction in the jail is too much, so I’m glad to have that out of there.”
In addition to checking off the major goals of his 2016 campaign, Strong also pointed to what he said is “improved professionalism” in the organization, including expanded training and revised procedures. He said his office has concentrated on implementing “less lethal” ways of handling situations, and focusing on crisis intervention skills, like training to spot someone with a mental health issue and how to deal with such a situation.
“How do you recognize somebody having a mental health crisis?” Strong said of what the training aims to accomplish. “What can you do for them? How can you de-escalate that safely, take them into custody … (and) take them to a mental health facility and get them the help they need? That’s a big concern of mine, because you don’t want somebody to miss those signs and do the wrong thing. We want to protect everybody.”
He also highlighted a program announced earlier this year that brings together the sheriff’s office, North Star Advocacy Center (formerly the Children and Family Center of Northwest Missouri) and Mosaic Medical Center - Albany to provide resources for more advocacy, local support and trauma-informed care to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
If re-elected, Strong said he would continue expanding those types of programs, along with others geared toward multi-agency cooperation like the new Nodaway County arm of the Midwest Regional Dive team — which provides water rescue, search, recovery and other services in bodies of water — that was announced in January in a partnership between the sheriff’s office and the Iowa-based dive team.
Responding to opponent’s claims
As it did in 2016, the 2020 sheriff’s race, between the same two opponents, has sometimes gotten heated.
Strong said that many of the allegations made by his opponent, Darren White, about how his office runs are false (see White’s candidate profile). Particularly, Strong has long taken issue with the characterization around his budget.
On multiple occasions, White has said that the sheriff’s office budget has increased by nearly a million dollars since he left office.
Technically, and as Strong admits, this is mostly true: across all three budget areas that were under the auspices of the sheriff’s office (the main sheriff’s office operations, the jail and 911 dispatch, which was operated by the sheriff’s office at the time), the budget number was indeed more than $718,000 higher in 2019 than 2016, according to documents provided to The Forum by the Nodaway County Collector-Treasurer’s office.
But Collector-Treasurer Marilyn Jenkins confirmed earlier this year what Strong had long maintained about the figure: much of it is simply a bookkeeping change, not new spending. An analysis by The Forum of the documents provided by Jenkins show that of the more than $718,000 difference, more than $402,000 of it was the result of a change in accounting practices that shifted some salaries, benefits and other costs from the county’s general fund into each department’s budget countywide, including the sheriff’s.
Based on that analysis, nearly $316,000 of new spending was added to the sheriff’s office budget between 2016 and 2019, an increase of about 8 percent per year across the three subsequent budget years after White left office.
“Like I’ve been saying all along, those were costs that were already there, attributed to the sheriff’s office,” Strong said. “…So, yeah, I guess it does look like it went up, but regardless of who’s in office here, those costs are still going to be there. If you remove those costs and look at my budget and his budget, they’re really very similar. They’ve built in some things that go up, naturally, and costs go up to run things, but it’s really not that much different than his.”
Another claim of White’s that Strong addressed was a lack of presence in more rural areas, seeming instead to have deputies clustered in and around Maryville.
“I’d like to know what he bases that on,” Strong said (see White’s candidate profile in this paper for more information on why White makes this claim). “… It’s easy to make claims, but I’d like to see him back them up. If you look at our call volume and where we’re out there, (we’re) … all over the county.”
Strong said that if people see deputies in town during the day, it’s likely because there are three dedicated to the courthouse on court days, or deputies are coming and going from the administrative office or the jail.
“But yeah, our night guys are out there, they’re making cases, they’re catching people out there,” Strong said. “It’s easy to make claims against me, but let’s back them up. Show me the evidence that we’re not out in the county, because it doesn’t exist.”
And finally, Strong chose his words carefully in addressing comments White made to the Northwest Missourian last month about Daisy and Melinda Coleman. To the university newspaper, White said that he was suspicious of the timing of Daisy Coleman’s death, saying, “… isn’t it odd that this happened right before an election?” among other comments about the Colemans that elicited strong backlash from some on social media (see White’s explanation in his candidate profile in this paper). Daisy Coleman took her own life in August.
“I think that it says a lot about an individual’s character when they attack a mother that has lost her husband — buried him, and then buried two children,” Strong said. “Regardless of however you justify it, that is wrong. And I thought it was heartless. And it should’ve just been left (alone). If he thinks that, he shouldn’t have gone public with it. And I hope that people see that we don’t do that; I would never do that. I don’t victim-blame. That’s not how you do business. And I’ll leave it at that.”