Letter to the editor: The sheriff’s annual report was a campaign brochure

Editor’s note: The Portager publishes letters to the editor from the community. The opinions expressed are published not because they necessarily reflect those of the publication but because we feel they contribute meaningfully to the local discourse on matters of public interest.

I’ve recently been mailed a copy of Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski’s annual report. While I’d normally welcome a local law enforcement agency’s attempts to be more transparent, that does not appear to be this report’s main focus. From what I can tell, this “report” is nothing more or less than a 16-page glossy campaign brochure for Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski.

From the very first page, it is clear to even a casual observer that the focus of Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski’s annual report is less the “report” and more the “Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski.” The man is the sole feature of the cover, and within the magazine’s 16 pages, Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski is mentioned by name a dozen times (more if you include the various seals emblazoned with his ego, such as the K9 Division and Detective Bureau). There is hardly an article within that doesn’t start by joyfully exclaiming that “Since Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski took office” all good things have flowed from the sheriff’s office, as if a benevolent deity of Justice, Peace and Love had personally opened the floodgates for the benefit of all Portage residents.

These bombastic statements of wondrous law-keeping success ring a little hollow in the cold light of fact concerning the tenure of Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski. From the perspective of this humble taxpayer, it seems as though Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski and his office enjoy exorbitant spending at my expense. Perhaps a short recap is in order, in case Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski has forgotten how his time in the office began:

  • “Within his first weeks in office, Portage County Sheriff Bruce Zuchowski raised command staff salaries by more than $152,000 per year in total and purchased a new Ford F-250 for himself, to the dismay of at least two county commissioners.” (source)
  • “Zuchowski, along with Ralph Spidalieri, his chief deputy, said the department needs $1.2 million in salary increases over three years, plus $1.7 million in vehicles, equipment, training, office upgrades and 21 new staff members.” (source)
  • “Chief Deputy Ralph Spidalieri, who is a county commissioner in Geauga County, said when the Geauga sheriff’s department gives commissioners paperwork, commissioners have their “finance people” review it.

    ‘The simple fact of it is, they should have caught it,’ he said last week. ‘It’s their job. It’s that simple.’

    Spidalieri said the error was not intentional, and amounts to less than $50,000 per year.” (source)

It seems disingenuous to me to apply for a job, be granted that position, then immediately buy oneself a brand new truck and approve raises for all of one’s friends, and then demand more money to pay for additional spending sprees. To say nothing of having the gall to blame what is ostensibly one’s boss for failing to notice a mistake you had submitted in a budgeting spreadsheet and brush off the error as “less than $50,000 per year.” I realize that organizations deal in larger sums than your average citizen, but I’d like to think that if someone stole $50,000 a year from Mr. Spidalieri, he’d be a bit upset.

In addition to Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski’s questionable budgeting skills, there’s also the matter of the policing culture he has cultivated within his agency. During his time in office, Portage County has gained local notoriety as an area with uncompassionate, unhelpful and occasionally downright dangerous sheriff’s deputies:

  • “The video features edited clips of a deputy refusing help to a couple who had called for assistance because the man declined to identify himself… After hearing their story, the deputy asked the residents for their identification. The man declined, at which point the deputy alleged that if he didn’t identify himself, he could be subject to an obstruction charge. The video claims the deputy’s actions were illegal as the man was not committing a crime.” (source)
  • “But a year and a half later, the cameras still hadn’t been ordered, despite three shootings involving Portage County deputies since 2021 — two of them fatal.” (source)
  • “A deputy in the Portage County Sheriff’s Office was indicted on two counts of rape by a Cuyahoga County grand jury in connection to an incident that took place Oct. 19 in Lyndhurst.” (source)

It is unfair to blame one man for the actions of an entire department, or even any specific individual therein. I am not suggesting that such a thing be done here. However, it does seem as though a cultural shift has occurred inside the Portage County Sheriff’s Office, advocating for a more aggressive style of policing that simply does not fit the area. This change has visibly affected the agency in several — clearly newsworthy — ways (see above), and all within the tenure of Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski.

Strangely, there doesn’t appear to be a section of Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski’s annual report detailing the multiple officer-involved shootings that have taken place in recent years, nor the officer training the agency is using to avoid unfortunate accidents and deputy missteps when interacting with the general public. Maybe Issue 2 of this report can sandwich those details between Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski’s hearty self-congratulatory articles about the P.A.C.E. Unit (implemented by Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski) and Marine Patrol (now with three boats, courtesy Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski).

All of this is to say that I do not appreciate Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski using his current office to campaign for his next election cycle. Which, I see, is next year. Weird. You’d think a man who’d had a job since January 2021 would have, I don’t know, submitted Issue 1 of an annual report at the end of, you know, his first annum. I have a sneaking suspicion that Sheriff Bruce D. Zuchowski’s annual report is not an annual collection of helpful data points aimed at educating and connecting with the public. It’s a taxpayer-funded campaign flyer using the public’s money to elevate the “accomplishments” of a candidate for the Office of Sheriff. This member of the public is not fooled.

— Devon Gahr, Ravenna

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The Portager publishes a range of opinions from the community. To submit a letter to the editor, write to [email protected].