Kelli Reinke: New Sheriff In Town

The Herald | New Sheriff In Town

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Story by Leann Burke

Photos by Traci Westcott

Spencer County Sheriff Kelli Reinke is not one to sit around when there’s work to be done.

That’s why when she looked at the department she’d devoted more than 20 years of her career to and found it wanting, she decided to run for sheriff herself. That was four years ago, and she lost that election to former sheriff Jim McDurmon.

But last year, in 2018, she ran again, this time winning the post.

“I felt like our law enforcement in the sheriff’s office was not where it needed to be,” Kelli said of her decision to seek office. “Rather than just complaining about it or listening to others say their dissatisfaction, I decided to do something about it.”

At the time, she gave little thought to the fact that, if elected, she would become a member of an elite Indiana sorority: female elected sheriffs.

There have been three other female sheriffs in Indiana’s history. Two took over after their husbands were killed during their terms. One was Clara Byrne of Dubois County, who took over the sheriff’s post after her husband, Louis Kreilein, was killed in an accident in the late 1950s. She was then elected in 1955.

The other was Lillian Holley of Lake County in the 1930s. She took over the department after her husband was killed in the line of duty, and oversaw that department while notorious gangster John Dillinger was imprisoned in its jail and escaped.

The third was Marietta Hardy of Scott County, who was elected in 1979 and served until 1982.

Spencer County Sheriff Kelli Reinke holds a goat for Taylor Dugas of Dale and her 1-year-old son, Gabriel Perez, to pet during the Families First Fun Fest at the Dale Community Center on April 27. The festival was hosted as part of national child abuse prevention month. Kelli brought goats and bunnies from her family’s farm.

More than six months into Kelli’s tenure as sheriff, if you ask her about her place as one of the firsts in Indiana history, she’ll shrug and say, “I guess I am.” To her, that’s not important. What’s important is the work to be done to make her department the best it can be.

There’s been no shortage of that.

The beginning of her term has been marked by staff turnover. Three deputies — Harold Gogel, Chris King and Kermitt Lindsey, whom Kelli defeated in the election — chose to retire at the end of 2018, and Kelli chose to terminate two probationary officers. The Spencer County Journal Democrat reported on the turnover in January.

But the election also brought an officer back to the department. The current chief deputy, Ron Higginbottom, came out of retirement to serve under Kelli.

Despite the turnover, Kelli said the election was cordial with no mudslinging from either side.

She held a staff meeting at the first of the year when she told everyone that the election was over and any hard feelings between anyone on staff needed to be dropped. She also laid out her expectations for the department going forward, which focused on more time patrolling the road and more aggressive police work following up on cases.

After that, she said, some of the officers near retirement chose to take it. For the most part, Kelli said, everyone left on good terms. Only one letter of resignation mentioned her administration specifically, and she thought that was about politics.

“Me personally, I just felt they weren’t ready to work the way I wanted them to,” Kelli said of the resignations.

Kelli leads area officers into a room during active shooter training in an empty building in St. Meinrad on June 3.

In the months since, other officers have left as well — also on good terms — either for higher paying positions or career changes. Now, she’ll have almost a whole new force.

All the turnover has left Kelli’s desk covered in hiring paperwork, and her office is a bit of a mess. The room is filled with boxes of uniforms from the officers who left and items from rooms around the department that are being cleaned out for the first time in years and repurposed.

Behind her desk, automated external defibrillator units sit on her floor, waiting for officers to complete the training and put them in their cars. Kelli wanted the AED units to be one of the first goals she accomplished in office, but it had to be put on the back burner while the department was short-staffed.

As Kelli moves around the room, the tall, short-haired woman, clad in the brown sheriff department uniform, pushes boxes out of her way.

“This office, that’s about to drive me nuts,” Kelli said of the mess. “I’m more organized than that.”

After the dispatch center was struck by lightning, Kelli tries to find a contractor available on short notice to paint the dispatch room at the Spencer County Sheriff’s Department on July 17. Kelli also had to order new equipment.

Fortunately, she has her department back at full staff, and once all the new officers are trained and through the academy, she’ll schedule more specialized training for the department. She also wants to get officers trained in the GREAT — Gang Resistance Education and Training — program to replace DARE in the schools. GREAT focuses on bullying, building positive relationships between students and law enforcement, and avoiding all illegal behaviors, not just drugs and alcohol.

Kelli said the program will give the schools more of the programming they’re asking for, and since the DARE officer is one that left, it’s the perfect time to roll out the new program.

The vacancies, while stressful, have allowed Kelli to build a staff that will help reach the goals she has for the department.

Chief among those goals is getting the officers out on the road throughout the county more, following up on cases more and generally being involved in Spencer County. So far, that’s been a success, even with the diminished numbers. The population in the jail grew from about 80 to 112 as of mid-July, and Kelli said the evidence locker is consistently full.

“I’ve told them I just want them out there in the communities doing their job,” Kelli said of her staff. “With anything — a break-in or a theft — we’re doing more follow-up and being a little bit more aggressive than we have in the past.”

Operating short-staffed — a full staff is 17, including the sheriff and chief deputy — for the first part of her term also helped Kelli form relationships with other police departments in Spencer County. She’s quick to give credit where it’s due, and repeatedly says how thankful she is to the Santa Claus, Dale and Rockport police departments for stepping up, and to officers from the Indiana State Police post in Jasper.

They are always around and ready to help with whatever the department needs, Kelli said. That support was clear during Fourth of July when lightning struck the Spencer County Sheriff’s Department, located at 120 N. Second St. in Rockport, and knocked out the communications radios.

Also over the holiday, Spencer County experienced a shooting and fatal accident within two days of each other. ISP was quick to offer support, and helped set up a mobile unit for the dispatchers to work out of while their equipment is repaired. The unit is borrowed from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security’s Evansville/Vanderburgh County emergency management office.

State police troopers also helped with investigations from the weekend incidents, and one state trooper stopped by the week after to check in and offer any other help Kelli and her staff might need.

“I’d like to be able to say I can come in and change the world, but you can’t,” Kelli said. “Working together, though, you can make a change.”

Kelli measures the vertical jump of new officer applicants at Heritage Hills High School in Lincoln City on July 2.

If you ask those close to Kelli, you’ll hear that she’s making plenty of change. Kim Fisher has been the department’s 911 and communications director for 16 years. Since Kelli took office, Kim said, things are getting done.

Morale is up, the department’s structure is improving and maintenance projects that have been ignored or placed on the backburner for years — the sheriff’s department was built in 1993 and is starting to show wear and tear — are being handled, Kim said.

Recently, conversations about paint and tile colors for the entryway and dispatch room have dominated Kelli’s days. That’s, in part, due to the lightning strike that hit the department earlier this month, although the work was on the docket to be completed soon.

Thanks to the weather, though, it’s become urgent as all the radios have to be replaced. Since all the equipment is out of the dispatch room, Kelli decided it was the perfect time to do other maintenance on the space.

Kim said Kelli runs her department by the book instead of politics, and is also always available for her staff when they need her, even if that’s in the middle of the night.

“She’s always there, she’s always helping,” Fisher said. “We can call her anytime, and she’ll answer and go to a call if we need her to.”

Always being on call has been a hallmark of Kelli’s law career, her husband, Bob, said. When she was a deputy out on the roads, you could never count on her having a regular eight-hour day, which was fine with Bob since he didn’t have a regular eight-hour day either. The couple lives on and runs a farm in Dale.

Actually, Bob said, Kelli’s schedule has been more regular now that she’s the sheriff.

That consistent schedule doesn’t mean she’s doing less work. Kelli’s been pulling 50- to 60-hour weeks since taking over in January, not counting the time she spends on call at home.

“I only have four or eight years [in office], however long it’s going to be,” Kelli said. “I’m devoted to my time here.”

Bob said he hears around town that people are seeing officers out more and that people believe the department is getting back on track under Kelli’s leadership. Her 25-year-old daughter, Michaela Anderson, who also lives in Dale, said she’s been hearing the same thing.

“It makes you proud of her,” Bob said.

Facilitating so much change, however, has left Kelli feeling like her service to the community is lacking.

Kelli radios dispatch on her way to a call in Spencer County on May 29.

While campaigning, she expected that, if elected, she’d be able to split her time fairly evenly between being in her office at the station and patrolling the roads herself. So far, that balance has not happened. If she’s on the clock, she’s been in her office. The last call she went out on was a shooting in Dale at the beginning of July. She misses being able to go out and help people herself.

“I guess in your mind, you kind of feel like you’re failing people,” Kelli said.

But that’s not how others see it. In fact, Michaela said, her mom’s never let her busy schedule get in the way of helping and being there for people.

When Michaela and her brother, Phillip, 21, were kids, Kelli took the night shift so she could be there for her kids and involved in their school and life. She also always helped Bob with work around the family’s farm, and she helped Michaela show goats. The two still make goat-milk products together.

Looking back, Michaela realizes her mother must have only gotten a handful of hours of sleep every night, and Michaela is grateful for her mom’s effort.

“I don’t ever feel like she missed out on anything,” Michaela said. “I feel blessed to have such a well-rounded person as a mom. She’s still very involved, and I feel very blessed for that.”

Growing up, Michaela also remembers constantly being out in the community with her mom at festivals and other events. The habit of being out in the community made the hectic schedule of the campaign more normal, Michaela said, although the family found itself spending more time at events since people often came up to ask Kelli questions.

For the most part, the community supported Kelli’s campaign both times, although during the first campaign, a man did come up to Kelli and say, “Missy, what you want to do something so dangerous for?”

He didn’t realize she’d been a full-time deputy since 1999.

When Kelli started her career in law enforcement as a reserve officer in 1989, women were still fairly new to the field, and Kelli dealt with other people doubting whether or not a woman could fulfill the job — something Kelli said has really only dissipated in the past six years or so — so the man’s comment during her first campaign wasn’t a surprise. She responded to the comment like she’d always taken people’s doubts of her ability: She did her job.

“There’s still some people that feel women don’t belong in this profession,” Kelli said. “All you can do is do your job. However they see you, they see you.”

In Michaela’s eyes, the idea that women don’t belong in law enforcement only drove Kelli to do the job better, and Michaela believes it’s part of why Kelli raised her to be an independent woman, able to stand on her own two feet if she needed to.

In 2018, Kelli’s years of hard work on the job paid off in a public way when she won the election for sheriff.

“It felt awesome,” Michaela said of seeing her mom win. “She’d worked so hard to get that.”

Although the campaign was over, the hard work was only beginning. Even with all the changes the department has gone through in the first months under Kelli’s leadership, there’s still a long way to go before everything is up to Kelli’s standards.

“I think that’s been the most disappointing part, not being able to deploy everything I wanted,” Kelli said.

She wanted to offer her officers some specialized training on investigations and crime prevention, as well as set up the GREAT program for the schools. But all that has taken a backseat to filling vacancies, managing an overcrowded jail and dealing with the aftermath of the lightning strike.

Kelli’s trying to be lenient with herself.

“It’s been a short time,” she said. “I think we’ve made a lot of changes. But there’s a lot more I want to see made.”

One thing seems certain: When Kelli leaves the sheriff’s office in four or eight years, the department will be almost unrecognizable from when she came in.

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