Jackson County Sheriff's Office Capt. Nathan Sickler emerged as the clear favorite of a community panel tasked with interviewing six candidates and recommending a replacement sheriff.
After a day of interviews Monday, sheriff's Capt. Dan Penland ranked second, while former Sheriff Mike Winters came in third.
The Jackson County Board of Commissioners will consider the panel's non-binding recommendations and choose a new sheriff as early as Thursday.
The chosen candidate will finish out the last two years of former Sheriff Corey Falls' four-year term. Falls left office at the end of December to become the new director of police services and 21st century policing in Gresham.
Five of the six members of the community panel named Sickler as their top pick. Sickler, who oversees patrol operations for the sheriff's office and began carrying out the duties of sheriff after Falls' departure, would offer a seamless transition, most panelists said.
They said Sickler has the background and experience to be sheriff, is well-rounded, supports modern and innovative training for sheriff's office employees, collaborates with others, supports transparency and is responsive.
Sickler was the top choice of panelists Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert, former Medford Police Chief Tim George, Jackson County Health and Human Services Director Mark Orndoff, Racial Equity Coalition member Amanda Singh Bans and outlying rural resident Rick Mendenhall.
Bans said she believes the community panel's review of the candidates was valuable.
"It really represents how a community can come together and make decisions collaboratively even though we came from different backgrounds and positions and — I'm sure — voting patterns," she said.
Bans said she appreciated being at the table with the other panelists and having the opportunity to be a voice for the community.
Another outlying rural resident on the panel, Kirk McElney of the Gold Hill area, was the one panelist who did not name Sickler as his top choice. McElney said outlying communities felt under-served by Falls, who cut back on traffic enforcement, and Sickler is a supporter of Falls' actions.
George defended Falls' decision to temporarily cut back on traffic enforcement during a staff shortage at the sheriff's office. George said the decision wasn't popular, but deputies needed to prioritize emergency calls for service, not traffic tickets.
He also defended Falls' decision to close a 60-bed section of the Jackson County Jail. Jail employees couldn't keep up on their training and were pushed into costly forced overtime to operate the extra section — which had been opened by Winters, the previous sheriff.
"Sheriff Falls had to make a difficult, unpopular decision, but it was the right decision," George said.
In naming their second-place choice, panelists said Penland has years of experience operating the Jackson County Jail. The corrections division is the largest component of the sheriff's office, with the most employees and the largest share of the budget.
However, panelists said Penland had served all his time with the corrections division and isn't as well-rounded as Sickler.
Panelists lauded Penland for his thorough knowledge of the jail, budgeting and management experience, support of community partnerships, helpfulness and ability to coordinate on inmate mental health issues with Jackson County Health and Human Services.
For their third-place pick, panelists said Winters — who served 12 years as sheriff before being ousted by Falls — has extensive experience and forged good relationships with other sheriff's offices in Oregon and California.
They said he was open to building on what has been working in the sheriff's office, and has acknowledged his lack of communication in the past.
However, Heckert said Winters did not have a cooperative approach with the District Attorney's Office and would often miss meetings of county department heads.
Bans said Winters had a tense relationship with minority communities.
During the Monday interviews, candidates were asked whether they would continue Falls' commitment to implicit bias training for employees, crisis intervention training to help the mentally ill, community policing, minority community outreach and other progressive actions.
Most of the candidates said they believe implicit bias training is valuable. Trainees learn to identify their own hidden biases so they can treat everyone equally.
"That was some of the best training," Penland said. "It certainly opened my eyes to biases I didn't even know I had."
In his interview, Winters offered mixed messages on such training, saying he would commit to carrying out training that is already scheduled. But he also said busy sheriff's office employees often have better things to do.
"I don't think we have any implicit bias," Winters said.
Winters said he wants all people treated with dignity and respect. To strengthen relationships with minority communities, Winters said he would either assign an officer to do that, or the sheriff's office would need to add staff.
"There's only so many things a sheriff's office can do," he said.
Winters said if appointed sheriff, he would work to reopen the closed jail section in 30 days — a claim most panelists said was unrealistic and irresponsible.
Sickler and Penland said with staffing numbers up, the jail section is on track to be reopened this summer.
Sickler said a new jail facility ultimately needs to be built with a design that would allow approximately the same number of corrections officers to keep watch over significantly more inmates. He would like to see a funding levy proposed that would also pay for a respite and treatment center for mentally ill people so they could be diverted from the criminal justice system.
Heckert said appointing Winters as sheriff would represent a step backward and would take a toll on sheriff's office employee morale.
Panelists said former sheriff's Lt. Robert Sergi, retired Utah police lieutenant William Froehlich and Deputy Sheriff Ian Lance all brought good experience to the table, but did not make it into the top three.
Lance said in his interview that warehousing inmates in jail is not effective, and he would not support a levy for a new jail. He suggested a new model in which people are kept in custody while they receive addiction treatment.