Essex County Sheriff Kevin F. Coppinger. (Spenser Hasak)
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LYNN — Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger knows firsthand just how multifaceted the sheriff’s job is. For Coppinger, being the sheriff means combining law enforcement with social work, education, job training and the rehabilitation of incarcerated people.
In his re-election bid, Coppinger faces a primary challenge from Virginia Leigh, a Lynn-based clinical social worker whose campaign centers on the belief that law enforcement experience is not necessary to serve. of sheriff. Coppinger recognized the importance of social work in the sheriff’s job, but remained firm in his belief that experience in law enforcement was necessary.
“You have to understand the law enforcement part. That’s where I think I have an advantage because I understand number one, the law and number two, all these different parts of the law,” he said. “Yes, social work is a big chunk. We embrace it. We have 30 social workers, then you have an educational component, a professional component, a reintegration component… that’s it.
Coppinger said he believes his term as sheriff has been successful, but he has yet to accomplish everything he seeks in the position, including securing a third facility for his program of support for transitions and reintegration.
“I’m not done with what I want to do,” he said.
One of the sheriff’s primary responsibilities is overseeing the Middleton County Jail, a responsibility Coppinger said he was only willing to take on because of his breadth of law enforcement experience.
“My background in public safety is a huge step forward in that regard. Understand the root causes of crime, understand the impact on victims and understand how to maintain a safe institution,” he said. “In addition to safety, in addition to social work, we also focus on reintegration, which begins on day one.”
Leigh has repeatedly criticized Coppinger for the county’s recidivism rate, which currently stands at 42%. He said the rate drops significantly as people are incarcerated and participate in the programs offered in the prison.
“Our data shows that longer in prison, actively participating in programs and treatment, all things, that number drops to 31 [percent]. It’s a very, very good number,” he said.
Coppinger also pushed back against Leigh’s criticism of the high cost of phone calls for inmates inside the jail, noting that the sheriff has to pay to provide the program in the first place.
“2.4 million dollars a year to pay for this system. So it’s not just you know, the 14 cents a minute for phone calls. Who will pay for 2.4? Coppinger asked.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the criminal justice system today? How do you plan to deal with it?
“I come back to the root causes of the crime. And that’s where I started my career. I mentioned the two big issues, substance use disorders and mental illness. If we could figure out a way to better screen these guys out in court and send them not so much to some other damn estate but to some type of outside facility almost before 911 is called, before the handcuffs come out , such as the behavioral health unit [in Lynn] is supposed to do… we need more prevention on this issue.
Q: If re-elected, how will you work to reduce recidivism rates among incarcerated people?
“We look at evidence-based curricula. We’re looking at national best practices…what works best wherever it is, in each area of expertise, all of those things. As I mentioned before, we have these programs, and we seek them out or broadcast them. Now is it perfect? No, nothing is perfect, is it? But when you look at recidivism, there’s such a broad definition, but that also affects what the courts do? So that’s also what happens to communities. What is the crime rate in your communities? And what is the rate of law enforcement in the communities? Are they out there making the arrest and rolling this and the post-George Floyd era that can go both ways and so on and how does that impact the things and when they enter and leave prison. So we look at everything we follow national best practices, we use evidence-based curricula, we have, I think, the best of the best in there. But we serve all the pieces. And my position is and that’s why I want to run for a second term in these rehabilitation centers. Like I said before that’s the reason I decided to run for sheriff is to take over what we do at the jail and make sure they have those services locally , because if they don’t, everything they do in the prison is just going to go down the drain.
Q: What can you bring to this position that you think your opposing candidate will not?
“Look at my journey… 32 years here at Lynn and seven as chief, lots of customer interaction, we’ll call them, arrests, but also the whole community policing model, people input, understanding the issues , I keep coming back to the root causes of crime, and right now the two main ones are substance use disorders and mental illness. Prisons are the treatment facilities for both of these issues.…I respect his passion for social service, the social worker side. I kiss her…we do…. So that’s a big chunk that I think separates me from Virginia. The other element is that you have to look at the work of the sheriff. And it’s not just one dimension. It’s not just about social work. We have the criminal part. It’s a prison and we have about 1,150 inmates.
Q: What is the strongest quality you can bring to the job?
“I’ll give you my motto that I brought from Lynn up there, honesty, integrity, respect. I think my reputation as a chef, if you’re going to be honest with yourself and everything, be transparent. Integrity is huge. Treat people as you would like to be treated. And I say this to the officers, treat inmates the same, we have to do this. And you have to have respect for everyone. Especially in today’s society, with such an emphasis on law enforcement, you have to do it and you should do it yourself anyway.
“I will maintain my reputation any day of the week.”
Charlie McKenna can be contacted at [email protected]