It goes without saying, the June 5 Republican primary election for the Flathead County Sheriff’s position is as hotly contested as it has been in several years.
Four candidates — Calvin Beringer, Brian Heino, Keith Stahlberg and Jordan White — are vying for the top law enforcement officer position in the county. Sheriff Chuck Curry announced earlier this year he wouldn’t seek another term.
The Republican primary winner will be the next sheriff since there are no Democratic candidates running.
All four candidates have several years of experience in law enforcement in the county.
Here’s a look at each candidate and where they stand on certain issues.
Beringer touts his more than 30 years of combined experience at the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and the King County Sheriff’s Office in Washington as part of his long list of credentials.
A veteran of the U.S. Army, Beringer’s law enforcement career began there when he worked as a police officer while serving in Korea.
In both Flathead and King counties, Beringer has held many titles, including deputy, sergeant and patrol commander. His supervisory positions included patrol, criminal investigations, community policing, court protection, emphasis teams, gang investigations and training. Beringer also was the interim director of the Office of Emergency Services and 911 center.
Beringer believes there needs to be better partnerships between the public and private sectors to accomplish goals.
In terms of the long-discussed jail expansion, Beringer said he doesn’t believe it’s an immediate need. A recent study suggested a new on-campus jail could cost as much as $74 million.
“We do need to educate people better about what we need and I’ll provide facts and figures of why we need it,” Beringer said. “Do we need to explore a public/private venture to get the jail built? It could be.”
He isn’t sure the county can afford student resource officers, but he believes there is a large group of retired police and military members in the area that can volunteer in the schools.
“They can be those mentors, they can be the volunteers that build that trust with our younger people,” Beringer said. “The drug problems, the broken families, it needs to be the community coming together to fix these things.”
Beringer also wants to see more mentoring-type programs in the jail for those dealing with drug and alcohol abuse, as well as family issues.
“We need to get these people to a point where they can have a place to live, have more stability in their lives.”
The current patrol commander for Flathead County Sheriff’s Office has been with the department for 15 years and has 17 years experience in law enforcement.
Heino received his degree in police science from Sheridan College and then worked for the police department in Sheridan, Wyoming.
Heino touts a resume that includes a wide variety of experience in the department, including SWAT team leader, Drug Task Force, Search and Rescue, Posse Reserve, Field Training Officer, Two Bear Air flight technician, rescue specialist and patrol.
For the fifth-generation Montanan, the growth in the valley and the rise of drug-related crime makes increasing the deputy force and involvement in the county’s schools top priorities.
“We seized 42 pounds of methamphetamine in 2017, so it’s clearly a problem that we can’t let get out of hand,” Heino said. “We need to establish the drug court so judges have more options and youthful, first-time offenders can get into the program that focuses more on helping them than punishment.”
Heino also wants to add two student resource officers, one in the north half of the county and one in the south, who will rotate among the schools.
“Building that trust with kids is vital to helping them before they end up in the court system and catch things before they become big problems,” he said.
In discussing the jail, Heino said time is running out.
“We need to stop putting band-aids on it. Every year we don’t do anything, the cost goes up 10 percent. We need to set a goal and get it done,” he said. “It’s more expensive to put it where it is now and we need more space. Having a larger jail can help reduce recidivism because we will have more space to do programs to help people get off drugs and make better choices.”
The current patrol sergeant of Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, Stahlberg said he is not a politician and will be a working sheriff, maintaining time on patrol.
“My character and integrity count,” Stahlberg said.
The 14-year veteran of the department worked in the masonry and aluminum fields, becoming a union leader in the Steel Workers Local 320, which represented more than 300 general laborers who worked for Columbia Falls Aluminum Company.
He then went to work for a local security company and became a volunteer reserve officer with the sheriff’s department.
Stahlberg was hired by the Columbia Falls Police Department. He graduated from the Montana Law Enforcement Academy and was then hired as a patrol deputy in the sheriff’s department.
Stahlberg said a top priority would be getting new radios.
“Not having working radios for all our first responders in the county, that can get someone killed. I won’t play Russian roulette with safety for them and for our citizens,” Stahlberg said.
The jail is another top priority, he said, “and we need to start saving money now so we can look to the future. We can’t afford to not plan ahead. The costs grow every year, but the radios are a immediate need now.”
Stahlberg said tackling the drug problem in the valley is critical for the future.
“If we allow it to get a foothold here, people won’t want to live here in 20 years,” he said. “We’re losing our innocence and we need to hold people more accountable for their actions.
“If those who are free on bail continue their poor behavior, then they need to be working off their debts and fines.”
In relation to the growing drug problem, Stahlberg said getting back into the schools through the Adopt-a-School program is a way to build relationships with young people and mentor them in an effort to head off issues before they become larger problems.
White has lived what he terms a “varied” life, and it’s easy to see why.
According to information on his website, when he was very young, his family moved to Bigfork. At the age of 7, he was hit by a truck, but survived. A few years later, when he was 11, his family’s home was destroyed by a fire. His family then moved to Eureka where he worked on the family sawmill and as a horse wrangler and barn manager in Glacier National Park.
He also worked with the Bigfork Ambulance and Ferndale Fire Department.
At 21, White’s law enforcement career began as a reserve deputy with the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office. He then became a trooper with the Montana Highway Patrol, serving in West Yellowstone.
White returned home soon and joined the county Sheriff’s Office as a deputy and quickly rose to the position of undersheriff after serving as a supervisor and field-training officer. He formed the department’s dive team, was a SWAT member, search and rescue coordinator and deputy coroner.
White left the department and helped found Two Bear Air with venture capitalist Mike Goguen in 2012. White did maintain special deputy status with the department, but while working for Goguen, misfortune struck White again in 2015 when he crashed a helicopter into an area lake while attempting to pick up water to help put out a wildfire.
“After it happened, I knew everything in my life had brought me to this place. I wish I could erase that, but if it hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t be running for public office now.”
White left Two Bear in 2017 and currently runs his own security consulting company.
White said the valley’s drug crisis is what motivated him to run.
“Seeing the pain and suffering due to the choices people made is difficult, but it’s something we can’t ignore,” White said. “We need to connect the 450 nonprofits with those that need help with their addictions.
“Not every problem can be solved by sending people to jail. Incarceration is a part of public safety, but not everyone belongs locked up.
“We need to connect former addicts with those going through it. Former addicts know more about it than I ever could. They know what’s possible and they could be very persuasive in helping those fighting it,” White said.
In terms of the county jail situation, White said he believes it can continue to expand in its current location.
White also believes his experience in business makes him uniquely qualified for the job.
“My combination of public safety and business means I can make the connections to get things done,” White said. “I don’t want to be sheriff forever. I do want to position our deputies for success in a more profound way.”
Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 758-4441 or sshindledecker
Four Republicans vie to be Flathead County’s next sheriff
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