By SERINA MARSHALL
Staff Writer [email protected]
Leighta Laitinen has worked for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office since July 10, 1995, starting her career as a human resources clerk and growing it into the position of sheriff’s deputy.
“I would work on pay issues and writing job descriptions, and never even considered being an officer,” she said. “HR was my background at the hospital, so I held that job, then got promoted to administrative services director. From there, promoted to chief operations officer, and I started with the detention center under me, I didn’t have any warrant officers at that time.
“I went to the police academy when I was 45. I did very well, and I got the leadership award for my class. Came back and reassumed my role as chief operating officer.”
Following her return, one of Laitinen’s best friends, who was the chief deputy at the time, passed away unexpectedly in 2017, and “the sheriff asked me to step in as the chief deputy and I did that,” she said. “So, I was chief deputy from 2017 until November of 2021.”
Laitinen feels that her background in communications, as well as experience in the administrative field, are her strong points, along with her approach to interacting with others.
“I always work very hard to be fair and consistent and treat people well, whether they be an inmate or an employee,” she said. “I definitely know that department inside and out, more so than either of my opponents. Especially the detention center, which anyone who wants to run for sheriff will learn soon, if they don’t already know, is the detention center is what keeps you awake at night worried. Because there are so many variables and
so many things that can go wrong.
“To manage a facility with over 600 inmates and 115 employees, and that’s just the detention side, I’m the only candidate that has done that. The other two candidates have no experience what- soever with the detention facility.”
Additionally, Laitinen said she has held every position in administration and believes her ability to communicate with people and to listen
is very important. And it’s also important to make sure employees are firm, fair and consistent in how they operate. Especially when it comes to the goals Laitinen has in mind for the area.
“First and foremost, we always have to fight this battle with drugs in our area. I think that there are things I can do that will definitely improve that. I think we need to focus more on where the money is coming from,” she said. “If you trace the money, you will find where the big bulk of the drugs are. And that would take some expertise that we’ve not had in the past.
“I would look at hiring someone who could do that, who’s got experience
in forensics accounting. I would also look at collaborating with mental health professionals and addiction specialists in our region. Because I would guess 85% of our inmates are in there do to some form or fashion of an addiction or a mental health issue. And at the current time, we don’t have a lot for them. They do their time, they’re let go, and they go right back to what they know.”
Laitinen said she’s had inmates tell her that the first thing they are going to do when they get out is go get high.
“Even if they’ve been in there ten years, they say that’s the first thing they are going to do. If we don’t look at implementing more programs to help, and cutting down recidivism, the thing is, we can’t keep building bigger jails, that doesn’t work and that just costs us more money,” she explained. “It obviously doesn’t fix the problem. We are all building bigger facilities and spending millions of dollars and we’re filling them up.
“How about we take mil- lions of dollars and help with some rehabs or programs? And I’m not trying to be soft on criminals by any stretch. But there are a lot of people that if you could just give them a hand up and not a handout on life, they might not come back to jail.”
Because Laitinen has always worked in some form or fashion in a field that serves the public or the community, she said she has seen what works and doesn’t work.
“I know the politics involved in that organization and I know what it takes to
run it and I’ve seen things I would do differently,” she said. “I’ve certainly got the experience and have put in the time to do that, and I would want to do it to help the officers. I’ve always fought for the employees of that department.
“The officers always knew I had their back. They always knew that I would fight for them, that I would stand up for them, and that matters in law enforcement, especially in the environment we are working in today.”
Though Laitinen has been in law enforcement for 27 years, she said that there is more to her as well.
“I’m a mother, I’m a wife, I’m a daughter. I’m everything that everybody else out there is,” she said. “I like to consider myself no better than anyone else. I have always tried to leave things better than I found them and I think that if you talk to anyone else that I’ve worked with, they will say that’s definitely true. I care about people; I care about this county.
“I don’t want to sit in the office. I want to go out, I want to be talking to people who have the problems.”