Benton County sheriff’s felony charge means he must step aside for now | Editorial

The Benton County sheriff is among the top law enforcement officers in the Tri-Cities region, and the community expects the person who holds that position to be honorable, moral and incorruptible.

Sadly, those expectations were shattered when Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher was charged with one felony and one gross misdemeanor this week, stemming from allegations of domestic violence involving his wife.

The community’s faith in the sheriff’s office is now severely damaged.

Hatcher should voluntarily step down from his elected post while this criminal case plays out.

It is the right step for him to take.

If any of Hatcher’s deputy sheriffs were accused of similar crimes, we imagine they would be forced to take a leave of absence until they were cleared of all charges.

The same code also should apply to the elected head of the agency.

This opinion has nothing to do with how Hatcher has been performing his duties as sheriff. From the public perch, he appeared to be doing a fine job.

He seemed to get along well with leaders of other city and county agencies and was trying to improve jail conditions.

Hatcher started bringing medical staff into the jail to keep addicts safe as they go through withdrawals, and he was working on an admirable plan to convert part of the jail into a treatment facility.

But now he has been accused of breaking the law and that changes everything — not just because he’s an officer sworn to uphold the law but also because he’s an elected official.

His wife filed for a divorce last month, saying the marriage is irretrievably broken.

Then, last week she filed for a temporary protection order against her husband, claiming she is the victim of domestic violence.

She says in December 2017, he strangled her during a fight when she confronted him about an extramarital affair, according to her protection order and court documents. And then he’s accused of pressuring her to change her statements.

Washington State Patrol troopers investigated and a special prosecutor from Spokane filed the charges.

Hatcher says he has been falsely accused, and that his personal life “has no bearing on what goes on inside the sheriff’s office.”

If there had not been criminal charges, we might agree. But that’s no longer the case.

How can someone charged with a felony be entrusted to manage other law enforcement officers? What example does that set?

Already, four employee unions with the Benton County Sheriff’s Office are asking Hatcher to immediately resign.

The employees released a statement saying that the allegations against Hatcher “are bringing discredit to this office.”

Hatcher’s own statement through his attorney accuses other county officials of being “politically motivated” by their involvement in the investigation and with pressuring his wife.

That also will seriously hamper his ability to work productively on county issues.

A spokeswoman for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs told The Herald that because sheriffs are independently elected by voters, they answer only to the electorate.

If he does not step down on his own, it could be tough to remove him from office.

Hatcher should not drag his employees, the public or the integrity of the sheriff’s department into an ugly situation.

He should take a leave of absence until the criminal case is resolved.

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