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Sheriff's race focuses on role of officers, mission of office
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Sheriff's race focuses on role of officers, mission of office

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Here’s What You Need To Know About The November Election.

The Republican challenger in the race for Atlantic County Sheriff says he wants officers in the sheriff’s department to be out in the community — “boots on the ground.”

“We had a patrol division at one point that covered all communities,” said Joseph “Tokyo” O’Donoghue, 65, a father of 12. He’d like to see that again, with officers trained in various languages and cultures to help improve relations between the public and police.

By contrast, current Sheriff Eric Scheffler, 54, a Democrat, says municipal police are doing a great job patrolling, and the sheriff office’s mission is clear: protect the civil and criminal courthouses, transport prisoners, serve writs and foreclosures, and pick up those wanted on warrants.

“It would be a duplication of service,” Scheffler said. “And we don’t have 911. If we were just driving around people’s neighborhoods, it doesn’t make sense. We don’t have the manpower to do that.”

O’Donoghue, who retired after a 41-year career as a police officer and later a county sheriff’s officer, got his nickname as a kid in Atlantic City. His grandfather was the first Japanese-American resident of Atlantic County, he said, and he learned to speak Spanish when he lived with a Puerto Rican family as a young person.

He also credits the Black women of his church for helping to raise him, as his family went through difficult times, and says his multicultural background and experience would guide him in the job.

Scheffler retired in 2015 as a lieutenant in the Atlantic City Police Department, then spent two years working at Mainland Regional High School as a one-on-one aide to a student in the special education program.

His wife is a special education teacher, and he has a nephew who is autistic and nonverbal, he said. Scheffler is also a board member at FACES for Autism and at Reeds Organic Farm & Animal Sanctuary, both nonprofit organizations.

Scheffler said he has 105 officers — just enough to cover the mission of the office. But he said he has agreements with State Police, the FBI, U.S. Marshals, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and others to work together, and does lend officers when he can.

“What we’ve done is supplement other departments when they need help. We are actually patrolling in Egg Harbor City right now ... because they are short manpower,” Scheffler said. Two other officers are working now with the Prosecutor’s Office. “My job is not to do their job, but work with them any way I can to create force multipliers to address issues.”

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O’Donoghue disputed the number of officers, putting the number of full-timers at 78 and saying the safety of officers is jeopardized because of understaffing. He has the endorsement of the New Jersey Police Benevolent Association’s Atlantic Cape Conference, and said he would use officers more for those cooperative ventures with local police.

Those assigned to the courthouses and other jobs need better language and cultural training, he said.

“Where is it more important to have an understanding of culture, language and people than in the court system?” O’Donoghue asked. “The civil courthouse handles everything from matrimonial disputes to civil litigation matters. ... In the criminal courthouse you are dealing with people who committed crimes. The safety and sanctity of everyone in court revolves around sheriff’s officers.”

The warrant division is one of the toughest jobs in law enforcement, he said, where officers encounter every imaginable culture and neighborhood.

“It is a dangerous, volatile situation,” O’Donoghue said, recalling a time he defused tension by taking his shoes off when he entered a suspect’s home.

“I said, ‘This is a Muslim home. Nobody wears shoes in here’,” O’Donoghue said. He said his respect for them resulted in an easier arrest.

Scheffler has focused on social programs like the Hope One van, which travels the county bringing help to those seeking treatment for addiction. It has put 1,100 people into treatment programs in its two years in existence, he said, often delivering them to the treatment center.

“I’m big on social programs. You can’t arrest your way out of (social problems),” Scheffler said. “When you don’t allow people to spiral into desperation, you are creating hope, and that’s what creates healthy and safe communities.”

O’Donoghue said he lost a daughter to the addiction crisis 11 years ago, so he has paid the ultimate price. He would make changes in training and staffing for Hope One.

“I don’t think we should use sheriff officers to train them to do that job,” he said of those who run the van. “I would ask people to help us and volunteer their time — partner with agencies that already have people trained in place.”

The two are vying for the position, which Scheffler has held for one three-year term. Per state law, the sheriff’s salary is 65% of the salary of a Superior Court Judge, or $122,850, said county spokeswoman Linda Gilmore.

She also said the current number of budgeted uniformed sheriff’s employees is 111.

Former longtime Sheriff Frank X. Balles, a Republican, resigned from the job in 2017 to return to his position as a captain with the Pleasantville Police Department. He was sworn in as an Atlantic County freeholder last week, replacing At-Large Freeholder Frank Formica. Formica resigned to focus on his career.

Contact: 609-272-7219

mpost@pressofac.com

Twitter @MichelleBPost

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Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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