JEFFERSON CITY - When Missouri's 115 sheriffs come up for election in November, Rep. Phillip Britt, D-Kennett, said he wants to be sure that they are certified and trained as law enforcers.
As sponsor of a bill which will require sheriffs to have training as peace officers, Britt says the standards required under the proposed law are very basic.
Under existing law, anyone over the age of 18 who has lived in a county for a year and is not a felon can run for sheriff.
Post-election training requirements are minimal, proponents of the bill say.
This is not a big problem in larger counties where the sheriff is an administrator supervising a team of peace officers.
The risk is greater in smaller counties where the sheriff actually goes out on patrol, say bill supporters.
The Wayne County Sheriff, for example, has two deputies assisting him to serve a population of 13,000. He is a former Highway Patrolman.
At the moment, all of Missouri's sheriffs are certified, according to the Missouri Sheriff's Association.
The House Public Safety Committee held hearings on the proposal Tuesday. It would require anyone seeking election as sheriff to complete 120 hours of training prior to taking office. Each would also have to complete an additional 350 hours of training within the first year in office.
Not all sheriffs agree on the bill. Jim Vermeersch, executive director of the Missouri Sheriff's Association, said his group is looking at the bill and may want to make some of the language more agreeable.
That will be a task.
Vermeersch said there are some sheriffs who feel that as elected officials, voters have the final word on whom they choose as sheriff. Training should have nothing to do with the election process, these sheriff's argue, adding that an elected sheriff should be given time after taking office to meet training requirements.
There are others who say training should be completed before a candidate runs for office.
"The training is not enough and it's after the fact," said Cole County Sheriff John Hemeyer. Although Hemeyer said he recognizes the proposed law as a start, it doesn't solve the problem.
"There are counties where the sheriff is actually covering a shift," says Britt, the bill sponsor.
But legislators could close the loophole before the November elections.
This may add some costs to the process.
"It's part of the process of making sure we have professionally trained peace officers," said Rep. Denny Merideth, I-Caruthersville, who co-sponsored the bill. Merideth said it is difficult to pin a cost on training.
"There may be candidates who have already served as deputy sheriff, or we may have individuals coming in from the military or the FBI who already have some training."
Assessing the training requirements will be left to the Police Officers Standards and Training Commission.
Candidates will have to cover the costs of training themselves and although this will be a hurdle, Merideth said most will become accustomed to the idea of taking exams to qualify for office.
Some funding will be made available for poorer counties, the bill sponsors said.
Britt discounted fears that the new requirements would exclude people from running for office.
The benefits far outweigh the risk of allowing the public to come into contact with a person with so much authority yet no experience or training, he said.