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Will outrage over the Grand Traverse County jail be enough to topple an incumbent sheriff?

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Max Johnston
/
Interlochen Public Radio
Protestors outside the Grand Traverse County Sheriff's Office

The Grand Traverse County jail has had problems for years. Now the captain who ran it faces multiple felony charges.
 
Residents have demanded changes from Sheriff Tom Bensley, who oversees the county jail and is up for re-election against reform candidate Greg Hall.

 
But outrage from activists might not be enough to topple an incumbent. 
The Grand Traverse County Jail

Inmates at the county jail have attempted suicide. Female inmates have been denied basic hygiene products. The jail’s healthcare provider has been sued.

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Credit Morgan Springer
Former Jail Captain Todd Ritter

A former jail administrator — Todd Ritter — is about to go on trial. The State Attorney General is accusing him of sexually assaulting female inmates.

Local non-profit Northern Michigan for Accountable Government (NMAG) held a rally in October to call attention to the jail.

“Four: the number of felonies Ritter has been charged with. They are second-degree criminal sexual conduct, embezzlement, larceny from a building, misconduct while in public office. All felonies,” one attendee read to a crowd of about 20 people.

A few years ago the group started looking into problems at the jail. NMAG organizer Jessie Horness said they’ve since honed in on County Sheriff Tom Bensley.

“We’d realized there was a bigger need ... there was a systemic problem in the sheriff’s office that needed to be looked at," she said.

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Credit Dan Wanschura / Interlochen Public Radio
A yard sign in Grand Traverse County.

Getting the attention of voters

But getting others to pay attention to the sheriff has been hard. One attendee at NMAG's October rally complained that more people didn't show up.

“1,000 plus: the number of people that are following the Facebook page, 'Abuse at the GT county jail.' Where are they right now? They should be here,” they said.

The group also asked residents to call into a county commission meeting and demand answers on the jail. Only two people did.

But organizers said they’ve had some success. A livestreamed reading of a report on the Ritter case got over 2,000 views.

Still, Horness said people tend to ignore sheriff’s races.

“One of the things that we did discover really early on, was that people didn’t even know the sheriff was elected,” she said.

She added it’s an uphill battle to unseat an incumbent sheriff. Bensley was challenged in the Republican primary this year, but he won with almost 75 percent of the vote.

Horness doesn’t blame people for not paying attention, but so much has happened at the jail that, she said, they should.

“If you know anyone who has experienced an addiction ... If you are passionate about the Me Too movement," she said. "Anybody who cares how their taxes are spent and who cares about government corruption … who the sheriff is still matters to you.” 

 

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Credit Morgan Springer / Interlochen Public Radio
Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley

Sheriff Bensley

The Grand Traverse County Sheriff is Tom Bensley. He worked for the office for nearly four decades before he was elected in 2008.

As for all the problems at the jail, Bensley said he's addressed them as they came up.

Specifically he’s been criticized for how he handled the Todd Ritter case — that’s the former jail captain facing charges. Bensley let Ritter resign after his alleged crimes were exposed. People attack him for that move, but he says firing Ritter would have opened up the county to litigation.

“Why didn’t we do that? Well, we took the advice of our attorney," Bensley said. "People don’t buy that, they don’t understand that, but it’s just that simple.”

That’s how Bensley feels about a lot of the problems at the jail. He adds it’s a big department and he can’t oversee everything all the time.

But Bensley says people have blown the problems out of proportion.

“People still have their head in their..." Bensley said before trailing off. "[Their head] in the sand when it comes to these issues.”

"We don't think he's doing his job well and if you don't do your job well -- over 12 years -- eventually you lose it." -Jessie Horness

Going forward, he said a new jail and more healthcare staff would prevent future problems. The county’s now working on some of that.

A challenger

Problems at the jail were the reason Greg Hall got into the race against Bensley. He is a Democrat running for sheriff this year.

Hall's mother was an inmate at the county jail when she went to the Emergency Room because she was denied critical medication by staff, according to Hall. He met with Bensley after to talk about changes at the jail.

“I really just experienced nothing but heel dragging after that and a complete reluctance to change anything,” Hall recalled.

Hall has never been a city or county police officer. But he says he has relevant experience in private security and military police.

And he’s always admired law enforcement.

“I remember very vividly for my 15th birthday, I actually received a ballistic vest," he said.

Hall differs with Bensley on a lot of issues. He supports the use of body cameras and de-escalation training. Bensley says the department is considering those but he’s not sure they’re needed.

Hall also disagrees with Bensley on working with federal agencies like ICE, saying the sheriff's office shouldn't always cooperate with them. Hall's campaign tagline is “Policing reimagined.”

But a reform candidate might be a tough sell for some voters like Cam Williams.

“I think you need to have some training or something before you start changing everything,” she said.

 

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Credit Peter Payette
Bensley still has a lot of support within the county.

Williams has voted for Bensley in the past. She says she knows Sheriff Bensley, and she trusts him to fix the problems at the jail.

“When you’ve got people in jail, strange things happen," Williams said. "I don’t hold him accountable for those things.”

Keeping the spotlight on Bensley

Northern Michigan for Accountable Government will keep trying to draw attention to the jail and Bensley.

They say their goal isn’t simply to get him out of office. Horness says they really just want Bensley to stop deflecting blame and start answering questions.

“We’re seeing the effects of attention already just in Bensley having to defend himself in the public sphere, whether that be in a county commission meeting or in a forum or to the press,” she said.

There will be plenty of opportunity to ask questions of Bensley in the months ahead if former Jail Captain Todd Ritter goes on trial.