Sheriff candidates talk illicit crime, local drug units, collaboration during forum

Vulnerable people being victimized. Deepfake pornography. Drug use impacting mental health. Violence arising from drug use. St. Joseph County is not immune from any of these problems, its five sheriff candidates said Monday, June 17 during a forum in Three Rivers. Each of the five men seeks to win the Tuesday, August 6 Republican primary and go on to run unopposed in November. 

The candidates’ comments on the largest local problems allowed for opportunities to promote specialized local units, consideration of wider collaboration, and sometimes both. The five men also shared their views on, among other things, teamwork, the next generations and unhoused people. 

Jason Bingaman, the current county undersheriff, said he will start an illicit crimes unit. Crimes like cyberbullying, sextortion and human trafficking exist, but they also ebb and flow, Bingaman said. Because of this, he expects freedom and flexibility in using resources to address the problems. Bingaman also praised the sheriff’s office’s relationship with the Southwest Enforcement Team (SWET). 

“To be financially responsible, you’re going to have a hard time if you can’t work with other agencies, and that’s what we’ve been doing. I’m pretty proud of that relationship. I do plan on getting the illicit crimes unit up and running about the first of the year,” Bingaman said. 

At least 100 people attended the forum, hosted by the St. Joseph County Democrats and moderated by Mike Styles from WBET. Candidates’ statements ranged from particularly concise, approximately a minute long, to triple that length. 

“The drugs that are out there in our county right now contribute to a lot of the mental health issues in the area,” said Joe Bingaman, who previously worked for the sheriff’s department from 2008-2021. “We want to bring back an organized drug unit to aggressively root out these people who participate in this type of behavior.” 

Joe Bingaman also said the unit would work closely with prosecutors and judges about the possibility of stricter penalties for repeat offenders. St. Joseph County is where the audience’s children and grandchildren will grow up and it should be a safe place for them, Bingaman said. He concluded his answer with a sentence about working with Community Mental Health (CMH) to create safe spaces for those who need them the most. 

As sheriff, Gordon Evilsizor will make sure there is enough room in the jail for people who are committing crimes, he said. The longtime agricultural business owner also said mental health “is a sad thing” that many people have observed. According to Evilsizor, the region’s unhoused people (“homeless,” he said) end up having harder mental health problems. 

“We have CMH in our county, which is great, but we need to use all our strategies, Community, health – that’s people in the state that they can depend on. We need to work with everybody to come up with a strategy to try to curtail our mental health problems, because it just boils over and boils over,” Evilsizor said.  

Chad Spence, who previously worked for the sheriff’s office from 1997-2022, discussed work within the State of Michigan. On Wednesday, June 12, state representatives voted 108-2 to pass two anti-deepfake pornography bills. Votes by the Michigan State Senate have not been scheduled as of Tuesday, June 18. 

“We started months ago, working with our state representative, on a deepfake bill to try to come up with the proper laws to prosecute the people that are creating pornographic images and videos of underage people,” Spence said. “That is an up-and-coming crime, and we need to make sure that we are ready for it. It’s most prevalent in our schools. That’s something that I think is going to be on the forefront and we need to be prepared for it in the future.” 

Dennis Allen, a current county commissioner and former undersheriff of 20 years, also said he would bring back a “bigger and better” organized drugs unit. The unit would be funded by revenue from legal marijuana sales, which Allen said has exceeded $1 million to date this year. Allen also talked about additional problems that come from abuse of both legal and illegal drugs. 

“Statistics say that the number one problem in the county is assault, from simple assault to aggravated assault,” Allen said. “I can say there were about 600 (cases) in 2023 and that’s been kind of across the board. I’ll bet money that a large percentage of those assaults and so forth deal with drugs and alcohol.” 

Later in the forum, Allen said he has two or three people in mind to be his undersheriff. Allen did not name his potential undersheriffs, nor did Evilsizor, who did not indicate he had anyone specific in mind. Spence’s undersheriff would be David Northrop, the safety and security supervisor of Sturgis Public Schools. Jason Bingaman’s undersheriff would be Captain T.J. Baker, St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Office. Joe Bingaman’s undersheriff would be Tim Barnes, a road patrol sergeant with the sheriff’s office. 

The Aug. 6 primary is the precursor to the Nov. 5 general election.