Two candidates for Dukes County sheriff, the incumbent Robert Ogden and challenger Erik Blake, will be running against each other during the state primaries on Tuesday, Sept. 6, on the Democratic ballot. Since there is no Republican candidate, whoever wins the Democratic primary election will become the sheriff.
The sheriff is the chief law enforcement authority for the entire county. This includes services provided through the county jail, regional lockup operations, the regional emergency communication center, civil process department, community outreach, training, and administration.
Both candidates have an extensive background in law enforcement on the Island. After earning a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice and law enforcement from Westfield State University, Ogden began a 32-year career with the Dukes County Sheriff’s Office, starting as a deputy, and has held “every position” there, including sheriff. Ogden continued his “[commitment] to professional development” by completing the National Institute of Corrections Sheriffs Institute, which he described as “a course of study that focuses on leadership principles and service to the community for sheriffs nationally.”
Blake, who was born and raised on the Island, said he began his public safety career in 1987 “as a parking and traffic officer, as well as a sheriff’s deputy at the Dukes County House of Correction,” before joining the Oak Bluffs Police Department. At the department, Blake “served in every role,” including as the chief, a position he retired from in June after 19 years.
Ogden said he learns “best practices and modern techniques” to “best serve the evolving needs of our diverse community” through his involvement with several law enforcement professional associations, including being president of the Dukes County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association. Blake said he provided leadership not only on Martha’s Vineyard, but on a state and national level, serving as president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.
“My proven track record as sheriff is what makes me the best candidate for Dukes County sheriff,” Ogden told The Times.
“The sheriff is the chief law enforcement authority in the county. I believe that my personal and professional experience and proven track record makes me the candidate best suited for that definition,” Blake told The Times.
Ogden listed various programs that were run under his tenure as sheriff, including an updated version of DARE, with more youth substance use disorder prevention programming, Law Enforcement Against Drugs (LEAD), the Ropes Challenge Adventure Course, and others he said “focused on supporting and ensuring the safety of our more vulnerable populations.”
“As we engage — nationally and locally — in discussions about justice and accountability, I have reduced recidivism rates, and adopted a restorative justice model with a focus on community restoration,” Ogden said. “This model is especially important in service to a small community like Martha’s Vineyard.”
Additionally, Ogden listed his involvement with the community through participation in different organizations, such as being elected to the West Tisbury Democratic Town Committee. Blake also highlighted his “commitment to social justice,” having led the NAACP of Martha’s Vineyard as president for years.
The two candidates have plans to support the Martha’s Vineyard community. Ogden said already existing initiatives and programs, such as veteran outreach and LEAD, and the emergency communications system, will be continued, updated, and improved. Ogden also has his eyes on a “long-term plan” to integrate the “current lockup facility” with other purposes, such as a trial court and potentially a State Police barracks. Blake said he wants to “re-establish” the sheriff’s office with the community by re-evaluating whether the current programs are working efficiently, and increasing transparency regarding office spending. He also said the Island is “not immune from the mental health crisis in America,” and he wants to make hiring a clinical social worker or psychologist a priority. “Although improvements have been made in officer training and awareness, the police are not equipped to fully handle these situations,” Blake said.
The candidates also spoke about the Dukes County Jail, which is housed at the Dukes County Sheriff’s Office. Both candidates agree that there is a need for improvements to the facility.
Ogden provided The Times some details about the jail’s numbers. Since 2013, the jail housed a daily average population of between 17 and 22, with a 2020 total of 10 and 2021 totaling nine — those years being outliers due to COVID. Between Jan. 1, 2022, and August 25, 2022, only two individuals were newly transferred from outside Dukes County. For fiscal year 2023 (July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023), $1,400,762 was the amount allocated for payroll and operational expenses.
While the facility has been modernized over the years since it was built in 1873, further improvements are needed. Ogden said having the facility on Martha’s Vineyard “is critical because it provides a connection to the community and families of our justice-involved population.” The next closest facility is in Barnstable County, which he said would cause difficulties for those involved because of the distance. Blake said he is in favor of modernizing the facility, but against expanding it to a point where more people would be incarcerated there. Ogden and Blake both acknowledged a need to improve the facility for women.
A part of this facility modernization effort is $6 million acquired under Ogden in state funding from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Administration and Finance, which will be made available over four years. Ogden said state-sponsored studies showing a need to modernize the facility date back to 1990.
“It is a good, and absolutely necessary, investment in this regional asset, serving the justice
system in the entire county,” Ogden said. “I look forward to allocating budgeted state funds and securing more funding through state grants and programs to improve the facility in order to achieve the best outcomes for the Island community.”
Blake told The Times although most of these funds are for building modernization, he plans to dedicate some funds for educational opportunities, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and provide “safe and secure family visitations” to better rehabilitate and reintegrate people into the community.
The Times asked whether the candidates would be against housing dangerous criminals in the county jail. Ogden said if a judge orders it, then the sheriff’s office must abide. If it is a request from another county, a determination is made on a case-by-case basis. “These decisions are made based on the safety of the individuals in our care and the safety of our community. Safety is my absolute priority,” Ogden said.
Blake said there is space available at other facilities, and he is not convinced “these circumstances outweigh the disruption to operations and the resources needed to house these individuals.”
“I have no appetite to introduce a ‘violent criminal’ into our minimum-security facility, only to eventually be released into the community,” Blake said.
The think tank MassINC released a report called “What to do with the state’s half-empty prison system” in March. With this in mind, The Times asked the candidates whether the Dukes County jail was still needed, and whether they would consider utilizing the Barnstable House of Corrections, as Nantucket does. Ogden pointed out that Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have different year-round populations, and they have unique circumstances that may not work for the other. He also pointed to the Report of the Special Commission on Correctional Funding, filed with the state legislature in January, which concluded that “custodial population declines do not necessarily indicate that staffing should decline.” Blake said the idea of using the Barnstable facility is not a new idea, but is open to exploring what processes Nantucket uses. Both candidates said that the facility is a valuable resource for both law enforcement across the Island and to the Martha’s Vineyard community.
Ogden and Blake are scheduled to participate in a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Martha’s Vineyard on Tuesday, August 30, at the Oak Bluffs library at 7:30 pm.