SANDPOINT - Bonner County Commissioner Bud Mueller's attempts to quash the Sheriff's Guild suit by withholding money for bullet-proof vests is going over like a lead zeppelin with deputies.
"Officers are real, real unhappy about this," Sheriff's Capt. John Valdez said Friday. "They think it's a very foolish move on Commissioner Mueller's part to play political games with their safety and their lives."
On Thursday, Mueller cast the deciding vote that shot down a motion to transfer almost $11,000 from the Justice Fund's statutory reserve fund to
the sheriff's budget so the money could be used as a local match for a $21,000 grant to buy bullet-proof vests. Mueller refused to sign the budget transfer unless the guild could be persuaded to drop its suit against the county.
Mueller is standing pat on his assertion that the suit will linger for years, consuming tax dollars in the process. But Valdez - and other county officials - say jeopardizing officer safety is not the way to go about resolving the conflict.
"The word 'extortion" has been used," Valdez said, referring to how some deputies view Mueller's maneuver.
Mueller has said he agrees deputies need new vests, but sees holding up the budget transfer as the only way he can trump the hand of the guild to try and stop the suit. Valdez sees more problems being created than resolved by Mueller's position.
"It's an officer safety issue and its a public safety issue because if an officer doesn't have the proper safety gear, he can't properly do the job," said Valdez.
"It could also be a violation of their civil rights to a safe working environment," he added.
Jan Morrison, the county's risk manager and personnel director, said at least five deputies contacted her Friday to voice their concern or vent their frustration. She said Mueller's decision affects about 30 patrol deputies and detectives that serve as citizens' first line of defense against criminals and other public safety threats.
"Deputies have said to me, 'we go out there to protect the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week and that board of commissioners could care less,'" said Morrison, who empathizes with deputies' frustration.
"If something were to happen, the you-know-what would hit the fan."
There have been three officer-involved shootings in Bonner County in the past year. Last January, Rex Prewitt greeted sheriff's deputies with a
.38-caliber revolver when they arrived at his house. Five months later, a suspected methamphetamine trafficker leveled a 9-millimeter pistol at Undersheriff Nick Krager. The woman was killed by another deputy on the scene. In August, a marine deputy was fired upon by an irate boater at Priest Lake.
While no deputies were seriously injured in the fire fights, the murder of Idaho State Police Cpl. Linda Huff in June, 1998, serves as a haunting reminder of the dangers officers encounter on the job. Huff was shot numerous times in the body and some have said her vest could have saved her life had her assailant not fired the fatal shot into her skull.
"We have probably the highest incidents of officer-involved shootings per capita in the United States right now. We've had over 10 officer-involved shootings in the last 12 years," said Valdez, who fears the vest fiasco will cast a pall over future efforts to obtain law enforcement grants for Bonner County.
Valdez also notes vests not only protect deputies from bullets, but knife attacks and car crashes as well.
"We've had officers who's lives were saved when they got into vehicle crashes and they (the vests) kept the steering post from going through their chest," he said.
To Morrison, political saber rattling is one thing, while officer safety is quite another.
"None of us should be in a position to threaten another employee or elected official when it comes to the safety of officers," she said. "That shouldn't have any bearing on it."