Douglas County sheriff-elect has been shaped by interactions with people he serves, he says

photo by: Jenn Hethcoat/Contributed Photo

Douglas County Sheriff-elect Jay Armbrister is pictured on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020. He will be sworn in as sheriff along with incoming Undersheriff Stacy Simmons on Jan. 11, 2021.

Douglas County Sheriff-elect Jay Armbrister said it may sound “a little played out,” but he enjoys helping people who can’t help themselves.

That help runs the gamut from driving a stranded motorist into town to buy a gallon of gas to consoling people who are considering taking their own lives, he said.

“When somebody faced their demon and they called 911, I wanted to be the person that was there to help them through it,” he said. “But not only did I want to help them through that instance or that situation, I wanted to be there as a resource for them going forward.”

He said he believes he has a lot of experience and lessons that he can pass on to the next generation of law enforcement, and he’s even more excited about taking office as sheriff now than he was when he filed to run more than two years ago in October 2018.

Armbrister, 45, is currently a lieutenant with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. He won 39.3% of the vote in a three-way Democratic primary on Aug. 4, faced no Republican opponent in the Nov. 3 general election and will be sworn in alongside incoming undersheriff Stacy Simmons on Jan. 11, 2021.

‘Bad things happen to good people’

Armbrister said that the people he’s met through his 22 years with the sheriff’s office weigh heavily in his life. That comes at a high personal cost, but the job is also deeply rewarding, he said.

In addition, he said the perspective he’s gained through this work has been heartbreaking at some times and elevating at others.

He started working in the jail when it was housed in the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center at 11th and New Hampshire streets in 1998, and he worked in the “new jail” — the building at 3601 E. 25th St. that’s now 21 years old — the day it opened in 1999. He was then promoted to deputy, completed the academy at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center in Hutchinson and spent 11 years on patrol. He became a detective in 2010, was promoted in mid-2017 and worked as a shift commander at the jail until the primary in August. Since then, he’s been on a special assignment to begin the transition.

In his time working at the jail, Armbrister said, he met people whom he otherwise never would have met. For many of those people, those encounters came at the worst points of their lives.

But he said beginning his law enforcement career as a jailer helped him make connections and lasting relationships that have paid off. For instance, he said, one person recognized him, knew him by name and assisted him in serving a warrant in a situation that could have gone in a different direction.

He said that early on, he learned that “bad things happen to good people all the time.”

“Just because you’re in the jail does not make you a bad person; it just means you’ve got a bad set of circumstances,” he said.

“… Not to say that that’s a hundred percent true, but I’ve never been willing to blanket everybody inside that facility as somebody who is bad because that’s just not fair, and it’s not true.”

But there are “evil people” in the world; he’s sat across the table from some, and he’s put handcuffs on some, Armbrister said. It’s made him a bit cynical, and it’s led to difficult conversations with his two daughters, ages 18 and 16, he said.

Armbrister noted that as a middle-aged white man, he’s “not very oppressed,” and he has tried to take on perspectives of those who have lived experiences that he will never know. He also said he has been judged and hated simply because of the uniform he was wearing, but that kind of bias is what some people experience every day, and he’s realized how privileged he is.

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World File Photo

In this Journal-World file photo from Jan. 24, 2006, Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Jay Armbrister, third from left, joins family members for a photo after Armbrister was the recipient of the Medal of Bravery at an awards ceremony. Joining Armbrister, from left, are his mother, Cheri Armbrister, his wife, Betsy, and his grandmother, Ethel Armbrister.

Top priorities

Current Sheriff Randy Roberts, sworn in July 20 after the early retirement of longtime sheriff Ken McGovern, is still in charge until January, Armbrister said. However, in the interim period, Roberts has given Armbrister the opportunity to begin the transition, the incoming sheriff said.

In that time, Armbrister said he has honed in on his top priorities, including two projects he wants to start right out of the gates. He’s asked Simmons to take the lead in launching a citizens review board, which would review complaints against law enforcement.

He also wants to look at how space can be reallocated at the 186-bed jail. The Douglas County Commission rescinded its decision to expand the jail in September, and Armbrister said he wants to avoid asking for an expansion at all costs. However, “We definitely need to look at how we use our current facility and make it more practical and more usable,” he said.

The jail saw average daily populations of about 235 inmates as recently as 2018, but that number has been dropping and has lingered around 135 since the coronavirus pandemic hit. However, Armbrister said that with COVID-19, the jail is “functionally full” at around 130 or 140 inmates, and he wants to see what can be done to boost that number closer to the total number of beds.

He said that as he’s evaluating the local criminal justice system, he believes it’s clear that Douglas County needs more judges and more courtrooms. Though the Lawrence Police Department will soon move its operations out of the second floor of the downtown Judicial and Law Enforcement Center once LPD’s west Lawrence headquarters is completed, some of the sheriff’s operations will still be housed there.

He said he thinks that eventually that second-floor space will need to be made available to the courts and to the district attorney’s office. At that time, the sheriff’s office operations might look to move to a facility near the jail and the Lawrence Community Shelter on the eastern edge of town.

Longer-term plans

Some of the changes Armbrister wants to make would need to happen at the state level. As Simmons told the Journal-World, Armbrister has said he’s going to be in Topeka “jumping up and down on the desks” to push for reforms.

One issue Simmons mentioned was mandatory minimum sentences, and Armbrister added that the Kansas Legislature has changed some laws so that people serve their sentences in the county jails rather than in state prisons, shifting the burden of overcrowding onto the counties.

He also mentioned specific laws: He said some in law enforcement believe that driving on a suspended license for the third time should be a felony.

“I am not on board with that,” he said. “I want to work towards helping people get their license back instead of putting them in prison.”

Another point Armbrister said he intends to “politely shout” from atop desks is regarding medical retirement for law enforcement. He said that if you separate your shoulder during an incident, you can get a medical retirement, but if you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, that’s not recognized as an injury.

“I want to help create a system where those folks aren’t forced back into a job that they can no longer do,” he said. “… I want those folks to get their retirement that they’ve earned, but also to stop drinking the poison that is killing them.”

Armbrister said he also has plans to build a first responder support network that will extend to the Lawrence, Baldwin City and Eudora police departments and fire-medical personnel. He said he thinks it will be a system that has not been seen before.

“I think it’s going to be something that, once it’s up and running, we’re going to have people wanting to come in and see what it is we’re doing,” he said.

Another long-term goal, Armbrister said, is to create a co-responder program. He’s been looking at a mobile crisis intervention program called CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, based in Eugene, Ore.

“I want to see if there’s some way that we can try to figure it out — how to start having those professionals taking the calls that just default to the police, who may not be the best trained for those situations,” he said.

The creation of such a program would require buy-in from the City of Lawrence, he said, and it would be costly to get it started; however, he believes the long-term impact would be beneficial.

Overall, Armbrister said he’s “stupid excited” to get to work, and he believes the current environment is “ripe for the picking.”

He said that recent events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., have been awful, but they have also presented an opportunity to hit pause and reevaluate everything law enforcement has been taught. He wants to be reachable, and he wants to be someone whom people from underrepresented populations feel comfortable speaking with, even when those conversations are difficult, he said.

“Not only is the community salivating for someone to come in and talk to them like a human, show them that we are humans, but also listen to them like they’re human,” Armbrister said. “… I’ve been afforded an opportunity to where I can stop this agency in its tracks and reevaluate everything and move forward in the direction that I feel is best.”

Contact Mackenzie Clark

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