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Endorsement: Howard’s stumble over the SAFE Act makes Dobson our choice for key post

Editor’s note: These editorials are part of a series endorsing candidates for a number of offices. These endorsements by the editorial board are intended to aid voters in their evaluations of those seeking office. Whether you agree or disagree with our recommendations, we urge you to vote and take part in our electoral process.

Timothy B. Howard has not been an especially good sheriff. The department was virtually rudderless until Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman took the reins. With Wipperman on the scene, things have settled down in Howard’s second term, following a first term that was marked by jail escapes and a rash of suicides that Howard couldn’t bring himself to care enough about.

What is intolerable for a chief law enforcement officer, though, is Howard’s announcement regarding the SAFE Act, which he regards as unconstitutional. He was declarative about it, announcing in May that “I’m more than reluctant. I won’t enforce it.”

That’s enough to warrant voters looking for a new sheriff. Whether anyone supports the state’s gun control law or not, anyone who values democratic processes knows that Howard was treading where sheriffs are not allowed to go. It’s why we are endorsing his Democratic opponent, Richard E. Dobson. Also in the race is Bert D. Dunn, running on a minor party line.

Howard, a Republican, explained his violation of his oath this way: “The Constitution is the law of the land. If you know it’s a violation of the Constitution, how do you enforce it?”

But he doesn’t know that it’s unconstitutional, and he’s not among the officials who get to decide that. That’s where he needs to honor the Constitution. We have sheriff’s departments to enforce the laws and courts to interpret them. The question he should have asked is: “If you know it’s the law, how do you not enforce it?”

It’s possible Howard’s purpose was simply to grab some easy votes from the law’s opponents, of whom there are plenty. But if so, he did it in a way that undermines respect for his office, for the law and, yes, for the Constitution.

Indeed, while Howard insists he is not backing away from his statement, that is precisely what he is doing. Now, he says all he meant was that he wouldn’t go out of his way to enforce the law, that he wouldn’t want one of his people arresting a grandmother for giving a gun to her grandson and, anyway, no one enforces laws against adultery.

Declaring that he gets to decide which laws are constitutional and which ones don’t merit his notice is an unsettling idea. Sheriffs and their deputies carry guns. They are empowered to deprive citizens of their liberty. But they are not bound by laws and by the Constitution? Not according to what Howard said.

Dobson retired from the sheriff’s department in 2000 after a 32-year career. He moved up through the ranks to watch commander. He doesn’t like to express his opinion about the SAFE Act, but says he believes it is his duty to enforce the laws.

Much of what he criticizes about Howard are events from the sheriff’s first term in office, mainly the rash of jail suicides and especially the escape of Ralph “Bucky” Phillips. Still, he is on target when he observes that Howard is in over his head. Only the arrival of a strong undersheriff has provided some level of stability in the department.

County residents deserve better than that. Dobson understands the problems in what he calls his “family.” And more than that, he understands that the job of sheriff is to enforce the law, whether he agrees with it or not.