CINCINNATI — As voters in Hamilton County head to the ballot box, one of the top races they’ll decide on is the Hamilton County Sheriff’s race.
“The Sheriff’s Office is a big deal. In part, it’s one of the biggest functions of county government,” said David Niven, political science professor at the University of Cincinnati. “So you’re talking about not just the police function but running the jails.”
The Sheriff oversees the Hamilton County Justice Center, security at the Hamilton County Courthouse and deputies on patrol. That includes a staff of 850 employees and an $80 million budget. Add in the recent calls for police reform following the death of George Floyd in May, and the race takes on even more prominence.
But Niven said there’s another factor at play here.
“The heat and the fire of this race is about the fact that, first of all, a Democrat took down a Democrat. And then, second of all, that defeated Democrat has joined the other side. So it’s very contentious,” he said.
Democratic candidate Charmaine McGuffey beat her opponent and fellow Democrat Jim Neil during the primary. Neil, the incumbent sheriff, is now backing McGuffey’s opponent, Republican candidate Bruce Hoffbauer.
Hoffbauer began his 34-year career in 1985 as a Hamilton County Sheriff's Deputy and was initially assigned to the Corrections Division. In 1986, he entered the 68th recruit class of the Cincinnati Police Academy as a police recruit. He retired from the department earlier this year.
“I’ve been preparing for this my whole life,” Hoffbauer said. “The office of sheriff is really something where you have to have accountability, honesty and integrity. I bring that with my experience with Cincinnati, and the men and women who work there, like any kind of job, are looking for leadership. I think I bring that to the table. Leadership, the honesty, the accountability.”
McGuffey, a retired major and former jail commander, spent her 33-year career working within the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, largely within the realm of the Justice Center, the third-largest jail in the state of Ohio.
“It’s important for me to run for Hamilton County Sheriff because the Sheriff’s Office intersects and interacts with every facet of the criminal justice system,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been doing my 33-year career. I’ve been working in that Sheriff’s Office learning how it works, learning how we connect with the criminal justice system.”
Both candidates said they plan to bring reform to the office if elected. Although, Niven is skeptical of how much reform each candidate is actually pledging.
“This could’ve been an opportunity for those issues to be aired, the notion that it’s time to reform police and law enforcement in America. But, the reality is, these are two career law enforcement officers running for sheriff,” said Niven.
“They don’t want to change the police. They don’t want big reforms. They want to continue what the Sheriff’s Office has done. This isn’t a race of visionaries who want to reinvent policing. This is a race of two people who have been in law enforcement for a very long time, who may want to do things slightly differently.”
On defunding the police
Both candidates say they are against drastically slashing the budget for local law enforcement offices.
“I am absolutely against defunding the police. I’ve said it a number of times,” said McGuffey.
However, she does plan to look at the budget and see where adjustments can be made.
“Particularly with this coronavirus situation and what people are going through right now economically, we’re really going to have to scrutinize and prioritize what we do. But, safety is priority number one. And priority number one is reforming the criminal justice system and that’s exactly what I am going to be about,” she said.
She is also open to reallocating some dollars to fund people who are in the mental health community and social services.
“The way that we strengthen our reform and our policing model is to bring people in that will help the police. That means training. Training in de-escalation, training in mental health issues and social service issues,” said the Democratic candidate. “I do think that we can help in the situation by taking funding and funding some people who are in the mental health community, who will bring some social service to us and educating our police in that way.”
Likewise, Hoffbauer said he is “100% against defunding the police.”
He said for law enforcement reform to happen, it takes investment.
“I am progressive in my thinking, I am progressive in reform. And you have to invest in recruiting the right diverse workforce for the agency. You have to invest in training, personnel, making sure your equipment is up to date. All of that takes money,” he said.
He went on to note, “Working together with social services and the mental health professionals, all of that takes money. In any way shape or form, to take away from the street strength of the police agency is a mistake.”
On no-knock warrants
Hoffbauer and McGuffey agree that no-knock warrants are a necessary tool that should not be abolished, but should be used sparingly.
“The no-knock search warrants, those… are used very, very rarely because they are very dangerous,” said Hoffbauer.
Because of the danger to both deputies and citizens, he noted the intense scrutiny the warrant goes under before a judge actually grants it.
“Those have to be used very sparely, so I don’t think they should be completely done away with,” he said.
McGuffey said it’s an objective to supply law enforcement officers with all the tools they need.
“In doing that we look at those policies and procedures. We look at what is happening and we find ways to make that the best it can be. It doesn’t mean that we necessarily get rid of no-knock warrants,” she said.
She plans to look at procedures and how much oversight there is currently over no-knock warrants.
What reform will they bring?
The type of reform voters can expect varies between candidates.
McGuffey’s focus for reform is around the criminal justice system.
“We can reform that system and make it better for everyone, and that means safer communities,” she said.
McGuffey believes Hamilton County’s criminal justice system is currently operating in the "1950s model." She’d like to change that.
“When I talk about that 1950s model, I’m talking about people who have committed crime, who have served their time … and now we want to move those people along in life so they don’t re-offend. And ultimately that makes safer communities,” she said.
Her plans also include creating a citizens review board, a liaison unit and a Human Resources unit.
Hoffbauer’s plans for reform focus more on community relations.
“Gaining the trust of the community,” he said. “The community has to have the trust in the police and the police have to have the trust of the community.”
If elected, his three key focuses will be accountability, honesty and integrity.
“I will look at things like use of force, how that’s reported, how that’s handled,” said Hoffbauer. “I am going to look at the budget, tighten up and decide what is necessary versus what is nice to have. I want to see and make sure all the personnel are in the right places.”
Both candidates have controversy in their backgrounds they have to explain to voters.
For Hoffbauer, it’s his involvement in a fatal shooting while on the job in 1990.
“If anyone has questions about my incident that happened, I am very willing to talk bout it,” he said.
“I was cleared of any wrongdoing. It was something that I was called to do in the line of duty. It’s not something that any police officer wants to do. I’ve carried that with me for over 30 years. But I knew that I did what I had to do to save my life, save the life of my partner and possibly some innocent people.”
Hoffbauer believes that, since that incident, great strides have been made when it comes to training and reform, both within the Cincinnati Police Department and the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office.
“There is better equipment, better training, the mental health professionals are helping us out more and more. 30 years ago we didn’t have tasers,” he said. “So I look for those types of things to be less and less and less because we have better training officers.”
For McGuffey, it’s an ongoing federal lawsuit against the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office for alleged discrimination.
The lawsuit was filed in 2017 and alleges she was fired as retaliation for pointing out excessive use of force, as well as for being an openly gay woman.
The lawsuit stems from an internal investigation that found McGuffey had created a “hostile work environment.” Because of that, she was offered a civilian position by Sheriff Neil. When she refused, she was terminated.
“I want my due process. It’s what I was denied. I was denied due process,” said McGuffey. “I was fired unjustly and I want the facts to come out about that and that’s exactly why we are going to proceed with that lawsuit.”
How to watch WCPO's sheriff's debate
WCPO discussed the issues in more detail with the candidates during an hour-long debate hosted by Anchor Craig McKee. The debate will air on WCPO 9 News on Sunday, Oct. 11, at noon. It can also be watched now online or wherever you stream WCPO 9 News.