When Tooele County Sheriff Frank Park leaves his office at noon on Jan. 6, he’ll do more than leave a post he’s kept for a dozen years — he’ll say good-bye to a life immersed in law enforcement.
“The sheriff’s office has been a part of my life for most of my life,” he said. “Law enforcement’s kind of a funny career — you learn to trust each other. Your whole career is having each others’ back. When someone steps away from that, it’s a reality check to know there’s a world outside of that.”
Park will step down from the office of sheriff next week as sheriff-elect Paul Wimmer is sworn in. Looking back at his three terms as sheriff, 33 years in law enforcement, and a lifetime of rubbing shoulders with those who wear a badge, Park said he doesn’t see one great accomplishment as much as a series of smaller steps to improve safety in his community.
“I can’t really think of one big accomplishment, but there’s been a lot of little ones we’ve been able to do,” he said.
Among those he includes: body cameras for deputies, obtained through a grant through the Department of Justice; increased pay for Tooele County Detention Center staff to the level of deputies to improve employee retention at the jail; and never going over his department’s budget.
“That’s one thing I’ve been proud of is we’ve never been over budget the whole time I’ve had anything to do with it, and that’s been 20-plus years,” Park said.
Park’s father, James Park, spent his career with the sheriff’s office, and young Frank was inspired to follow in his footsteps. Park started at the Tooele City Police Department, but transferred over to the county a few years later. He was named chief deputy for sheriffs Marion Carter, Don Proctor and Frank Scharmann, and was jail commander for six years before being elected as sheriff in 2002. On top of his work in law enforcement, Park has also been a volunteer firefighter with the Tooele City Fire Department.
“I’ve been lucky enough to do basically everything in law enforcement,” he said. “Of course, when you’re here for 30 years, you can do that.”
Park said he felt his diverse public safety experience helped him step into the role of sheriff, but to keep that job has come down to hard work for both the department’s personnel and citizens of the community.
“If you do what you’re supposed to do and the people understand that, you’ll be re-elected, and if you don’t, you don’t deserve it,” he said. “If you do what you think is right for the sheriff’s office as a whole, you’re going to be able to sleep at night. If you did something you shouldn’t have, that’s going to bother you.”
Being not only elected but re-elected twice by the community was a tremendous honor, Park said.
While he never saw himself as a politician, Park found himself active in the political scene during his tenure as sheriff, speaking up during the state legislative session for law enforcement issues, serving as president of both the Utah Sheriff’s Association and the Western States Sheriff’s Association, and testifying in senate subcommittee hearings as a representative of those organizations.
“Testifying for a senate subcommittee — that’s pressure,” he said. “I guess I am a politician when it comes down to it, but I hate to admit it.”
During his time as the county’s top lawman, Park also rallied for and oversaw the construction of a new jail. The project was later blamed for many of the county’s fiscal woes, though Park said the facility was merely a scapegoat for years of irresponsible spending by the county as a whole.
“People unfairly blame the new jail because it came about the same time as the budget crisis. The new jail had absolutely nothing to do with the county woes,” he said, noting criticism was also lodged at the department for not getting enough federal prisoners to help pay for the facility. “There’s just not enough federal prisoners out there [to pay for the jail].”
The county’s financial crisis in 2012 also resulted in the worst part of his career, Park said, when he had to lay off several members of his department because of severe budget cuts. His budget was slashed $800,000 during the final quarter of 2012 as part of the county’s emergency belt-tightening.
“The worst part of my life was sitting across this desk and telling 23 people, ‘Sorry, your dreams of being a law enforcement officer or corrections officer is over because of a funding SNAFU,” Park said. “It shouldn’t have come to that. It should never come to that. If our elected officials were doing their jobs, it wouldn’t have come to that.”
The culture of working for the county has changed over the last few years, he said — just little things, but enough to make it a less enjoyable organization to work for, though he’s hopeful that trend will be reversed. The change in work culture is just one of many he’s seen in his time in the office. For example, when he started with the county, the jail had just 16 beds. That increased to 104 with an upgraded facility, and has swelled to 264 bunks with the current jail.
Tooele County Search and Rescue has also grown, and its all-volunteer team’s current training demands have made it one of the best organizations of its kind in the region, he said. In all a significant accomplishment, due to the county’s enormous size of 7,200 square miles, which makes any search like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack.
“We’ve got one of the best search and rescue units, not only in the state, but in the nation,” he said. “They’re the lowest budget item. The members are very self-sufficient — if something breaks, they fix it. I couldn’t do a search; I couldn’t do the things we have to do without them.”
“We could not function without a search and rescue,” he added.
The Tooele County Dispatch Center has also upped its game and expertise, becoming one of the best of its kind under the guidance of Lt. Regina Nelson, Park said.
“Our dispatch center is by far one of the best in the intermountain area, and that has very little to do with me,” he said. “That was Regina and her people.”
The citizen’s patrol, in which volunteers provide a para-police presence to help the tightly stretched patrol deputies, is also an excellent addition to the department, Park said. The office has also had a stream of high-quality corrections officers, deputies, detectives, lieutenants and chief deputies, he added, and the setup should provide a solid foundation for the department even as its administration changes.
“The incoming people will have a major learning curve but the staff will keep it running smoothly,” he said, noting he felt that was true of all elected positions changing next week. “[Wimmer] is a fresh face. Maybe there are things that need to be changed, and that’s OK. I think I’m leaving this place in a little bit better shape than when I got here.”
Park said he doesn’t yet know what he’ll do in retirement. He plans on staying in the area, and has had some offers for full-time work after he leaves, but wants to catch his breath before moving on to the next challenge. Besides, he said, he’s earned a little bit of a break.
“I know my wife’s definition of retirement is not even close to mine, so I’m sure I’ll be doing a lot of honey-dos,” he said. “Thirty-five years in law enforcement and 25 years with Tooele City Fire? That’s enough public service. Now I think it’s time for some grandkid service, some family service.”