Sheriff Jim Neil and former Major Charmaine McGuffey. Photo by Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office
By Dan Yount
The Cincinnati Herald
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil and Charmaine McGuffey, his former supervisor at the Hamilton County Justice Center whom he fired, are entered into a bitter contest on the Democratic side of the sheriff’s race in the Tuesday, March 17 primary election in Hamilton County.
The Hamilton County Democratic Party recently endorsed McGuffey in this primary race, which is a rare action when a party’s incumbent is running for reelection.
Both candidates have been making separate appearance at various events. The Herald caught up with Neil at the Faith Community Alliance monthly meeting and McGuffey at the Applied Information Resources luncheon.
In their own words, here is want they say about why they should be elected the county’s top law enforcement officer:
Sheriff Jim Neil, 61, is seeking his third term.
He says during his seven years as sheriff of Hamilton County, he has tackled the county’s opioid epidemic, fostered successful and broad-based community engagement and made critical improvements to the county jail despite budget cuts and overcrowding.
Although he is not endorsed by the Democratic Party due to his appearance at a rally for President Trump, he says he has endorsements from many of county’s top Democratic Party officeholders, former officeholders, activists and labor-union leaders.
“It’s been the honor of my life to serve Hamilton County as its sheriff,” Neil said. “This job is 24/7 endeavor, and it needs someone who understands the complex innerworkings of the patrol, jail and court-services divisions for which we are responsible. It is imperative that this county has a sheriff who has the right experience, integrity and leadership skills.”
Neil was among a small group of county and regional leaders who recognized and confronted the opioid epidemic in Hamilton County. He worked with city and county law-enforcement officers and community leaders to create the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition Task Force, which implemented policy of education, enforcement and treatment instead of simply incarcerating addicts.
He says that during his tenure, the Hamilton County jail improved from one of Ohio’s worst jails to one of its best. In their most recent inspection report, state inspectors found that the jail complied with all 111 (up from 69) standards, making it a “Complaint Jail” and meeting all essential standards required for an Ohio corrections facility.
“I am proud to be one of the longest-serving Democrats in Hamilton County,” Neil said. “Having these Democratic leaders, including all three county commissioners and leading union leaders behind me shows that they appreciate my efforts to expand collective bargaining rights, increase wages for our deputies in the Sheriff’s Office and my proud support of our unions and their membership.’’
Neil lives in Sayler Park with his wife, Kim, and their two small children. He is a graduate of Western Hills High School and graduated with a bachelor of science in criminal justice and master’s in graduate studies and research from the University of Cincinnati. He also has more than 37 years of law-enforcement training and experience, including service in both the jail and patrol divisions and as a traffic-accident reconstructionist, a bomb technician and hazmat technician. He also has served as an instructor in both the Basic Corrections Academy and the Basic Patrol Academy, where he served as school commander.
A second generation law-enforcement officer, Neil said he provides community outreach programs to foster positive relationships with the public, raise money for the families public safety officer injured or killed in the line of duty and provide mentoring opportunities for youngsters, such as “Game with a Cop.’’
During his first term in office, at the request of elected and/or appointed officials, his office expanded the sheriff’s law enforcement responsibilities in Silverton, Arlington Heights, Lincoln Heights and Elmwood Place.
He says the budget for the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office is not adequate. Two separate independent audits have shown this. In 2015, the office’s annual budget was $52 million, a $17 million reduction from 10 years ago.
“My No.1 priority would be more resources into combatting the heroin epidemic, including building a drug detox and treatment center at the jail. More than 10,000 heroin addicts come through the doors of the jail each year. I would expand enforcement activities in this area,’’ he said”
Charmaine McGuffey, a former major in the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department, spent 33 years moving up through the ranks to become commander of the Hamilton County Justice Center, before being fired in 2017 over disagreements with Sheriff Jim Neil about excessive use of force against prisoners and sexual harassment of female prisoners and staff in the jail.
During her time as the top jail official, starting in 2013, she supervised 500 uniformed employees and 1,400 prisoners. (The jail was built for 840 prisoners in the 1980s.) As the third largest jail in Ohio, it was rated the worst jail in Ohio, she said.
“The jail was poorly funded, the facilities were inappropriate, prisoners were poorly treated, officers were not held accountable, and morale was low, with some officers working three consecutive shifts resulting in a high turnover rate,” she said. “It was as if former Sheriff Simon Leis had built a moat around the jail. Even judges did not get in.’’
McGuffey said she is a “true reformer’ and set out to make changes that would be beneficial to both employees as well as provide more humane treatment of prisoners.
“I challenged practices that were harmful to prisoners and staff and was told to stay in my lane, to go with the flow and to stay quiet. As the commander of the jail, it was my responsibility and my lane. I did not stay quiet and go with the flow. It cost me my job,’’ she said.
McGuffey said she grew up in price Hill with her two sisters, all raised by a single mother and caring neighbors. She attended Western Hills High School, and earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from University of Cincinnati. She had been motivated to pursue a career in law enforcement by negative comments by an uncle, who told her, “Women cannot become cops, and cops cannot be women.’’
She was among the first wave of women deputies to come out of the police recruit academy. After joining the Sheriff’s Department in 1983, McGuffey eventually worked her way up the ranks. As a captain, she was the commander of the Training Academy. As major, she was the commander of Jail and Court Services.
As she moved on to the jail position, she said she saw opportunities for reform. “I wanted to bring the jail up and out of the 1950s. I wanted to put the welcome sign up”.
She began partnering with people, such as former addicts and reformed former prisoners, agencies and businesses. She started a book club for women, an art program and other programs, all at no cost to the county. She began placing prisoners with like issues in like pods, such as veterans, addicts and inmates with medical issues. She started providing counseling, mentoring, and other services to help prisoners prepare to return to the community.
Although some prisoners are sleeping on the floor due to overcrowding, McGuffey said what is not needed in these troubling financial times is a new jail. Instead, she called for funding to upgrade the existing jail.
McGuffey said that when men and women walk out of jail, they should be prepared to be reconnected to the community, adding that a safer community results when they are connected to social services that help them get safely back to their families and lives.
“Even during a short period of incarceration, prisoners can lose their jobs, cars and housing, and we tell them when they are released, sometimes alone on a dark cold morning, to go out and do more with less. It’s not right,’’ she said.
Hamilton County has an excellent staff of sheriff’s deputies, she said. A staff she wants to get back with and work with to make the county law enforcement the best in the nation.
“I have a passion for the job. Yes, I am a woman, but bullies do not intimidate me. I also have experience and people interested in helping me,’’ she said.
McGuffey added that when prisoners are treated better, treated with human dignity, they do better during their incarcerations. She tells the story about greeting a man sitting on a bench during her first rounds at the jail, and stopping to talk to him. While she was beginning to leave, he told her she was the first person at the jail who treated him with respect.
As a final note, McGuffey said she would have handled the Tracie Hunter sentencing case last summer differently. She would have had three or four female deputies in the courtroom as well as a medical professional present because of Hunter’s health issues. In jail, she would have had a female deputy keep an eye on Hunter during each shift, and they would have kept a daily log of her condition. She would have visited Hunter daily, as she did when Ray Tensing, the former University of Cincinnati police officer who fatally shot unarmed driver Sam Dubose.
“It was my responsibility to make sure prisoners were kept safe. When prisoners are released, we want to make sure they have the resources they need,” she said.