Dukes County sheriff candidates Bob Ogden and Erik Blake fielded questions from a room full of voters at an August 30 candidates forum in the Oak Bluffs library, one of their last chances to define their differences in style and substance ahead of the Sept. 6 primary. The forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters, saw the candidates weigh in on their qualifications, the condition of the county jail and the use of social and support programs for incarcerated people in Dukes County.

Mr. Blake and Mr. Ogden are both running as Democrats for a six-year term as sheriff, the chief law enforcement authority for Dukes County and head of the Dukes County Jail & House of Correction as well as the Dukes County radio communications network, which coordinates emergency response around the Island.

Mr. Ogden is the incumbent sheriff running for his second term, and Mr. Blake is the now-retired longtime police chief in Oak Bluffs. There is no Republican running for the seat.

In his opening statement, Mr. Ogden said he’s spent his entire career with the sheriff’s office, holding positions throughout the department, “including corrections officer,” he said.

He added that he sees the office as multi-faceted and requiring a candidate with versatile experience, noting his experience securing millions in grants for the sheriff’s department in his first term.

“I focused on leading with a progressive, proactive and team-led approach,” Mr. Ogden said.

Mr. Blake outlined his career as a police officer in Oak Bluffs, starting as a special summer officer. Countering criticism that his experience is narrowly focused on policing, he noted that he is the owner of Blitz Fitness in Vineyard Haven.

He discussed his experience in the political realm, having worked with legislators to secure funding for the Oak Bluffs police department. He also noted that he has experience in public safety, after being appointed public safety director in Oak Bluffs while the town searched for a fire chief during the pandemic.

“My appointment … allowed the town to conduct a proper search for the next fire chief,” Mr. Blake said.

The two candidates outlined their top priorities for the office if they are elected. Mr. Blake said he would work to improve the visibility of the office, reaching out to the community to better explain the duties of the sheriff. He added that he would create a citizen advisory committee to field questions and concerns from the community, as well as distribute information.

Later in the forum, Mr. Blake said a third priority would be to employ social workers to help to respond to mental health calls alongside officers and aid in deescalation.

Responding to Mr. Blake, Mr. Ogden said there likely is not enough mental health staff to support such a position on the Island.

“I can just not imagine how much it would cost us,” he said.

Mr. Ogden said his top priority would be the continued improvement of the Dukes County radio communications network. He said that building the current system, which increased radio coverage on the Vineyard, was a major accomplishment of his first term.

A second priority, Mr. Ogden said, is to rehabilitate the county correctional facility, built in 1873. Throughout the forum, he repeatedly mentioned the poor conditions of the facility, with turn-key locks and iron bars.

“It’s draconian, the facility itself … When people say it’s inhumane, it is,” he said.

He added that a third priority is to bolster and create stronger quality of life and rehabilitation standards for people incarcerated at the corrections facility.

Questions during the forum mostly focused on plans for the correctional facility and ways to better serve the population of incarcerated people on the Island.

Both candidates agreed that the correctional facility must be improved, pledging to make necessary changes. Mr. Ogden noted that he has already secured $6 million in grants for its improvement.

“The facility is archaic,” Mr. Ogden said, responding to a question about the women’s lockup, calling it “a closet.”

“With or without funding, I will improve the conditions of temporary lockup for women,” Mr. Blake said.

The candidates also addressed their plans for Islanders experiencing homelessness, with both noting that many end up involved in the justice system.

“It’s really unfortunate that that seems to be the endgame for” people who are homeless, Mr. Blake said.

Mr. Ogden said that for all those incarcerated at the corrections facility, the county offers a case manager and programs to find a job, as well as housing and educational opportunities for people experiencing homelessness.

“We look at the entire person,” Mr. Ogden said.

Both candidates also vowed they would not enter into a memorandum of agreement with the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, called 287(g), that would give the federal agency some access to local police or the corrections facility in order to locate undocumented people involved in the justice system.

“I have no appetite for it,” Mr. Blake said.

“We’ve never had 287(g) here, and we will not,” Mr. Ogden said.

In their closing statements, the candidates reiterated their qualifications, and thanked voters for showing out to the forum.

“I have the abilities, the temperament and the knowledge to lead this department into the future,” Mr. Blake said.

“Dukes County needs a sheriff with proven acumen,” Mr. Ogden said.