By Janet C. Smith
STROUDSBURG, MONROE COUNTY - The arrest of Bryan Kohberger, the accused killer of four college students in Idaho, shocked residents and brought national attention to Monroe County. His arrest, detention at the Monroe County Correctional Facility, arraignment at the Courthouse, and subsequent extradition to Idaho resulted in news and media outlets swarming the locations where he was processed. Monroe County Sheriff Ken Morris headed the task of transporting and maintaining a safe environment for all parties.
So who is Sheriff Ken Morris, and what exactly does the Sheriff’s Department do? To explain the responsibilities and scope of the county sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Morris agreed to an interview with the Stroudsburg Herald.
Most people encounter the Sheriff and his twenty-four deputies as they conduct the duties entailed at the Monroe County Courthouse. Their work with the courts is the priority of the Department, providing security to that facility and the processing of inmates. At times, as many as seven judges are conducting court, which requires the full complement of deputies be assigned.
Extensive training and various certifications are required to fulfill the role of Sheriff and deputies. Beginning in 2014, an individual may be elected as Sheriff, but have no ability to do the work until the 19-week Sheriff’s academy is completed. On day one, individuals must pass a physical fitness test, part of which in running two miles. An individual who fails the physical cannot complete the training and cannot be certified to do the job. That person is barred from running for Sheriff in the future. The result is they are a lame-duck sheriff doing no more than signing checks. It is critically important the voters understand the qualifications of the candidates for Sheriff to ensure the person elected will be able to be certified. Legally, an annual update is required to maintain certification.
Having served eight years in the US Marines, Sheriff Morris attended the police academy prior to beginning his career in 2011 as Deputy Sheriff. During that time, he was promoted to Corporal/Field Training Officer and then Sergeant. In 2020, he was elected Sheriff after a long time, Sheriff Todd Martin retired.
As seen in the Kohberger case, the Sheriff’s Department must conduct the transport of inmates to the courts. The notoriety of the Kohberger case may have given the impression of extraordinary security, but Morris said all transports are handled with the same security in place. All are dangerous, and there is often planning with state police, local police, and the judge involved.
The Sheriff's Department in responsible for serving warrants and arresting individuals. High felony warrants are coordinated with the District Attorney. This dangerous job requires that two deputies are sent. Also, individuals who do not show up for trial or sentencing must be located and arrested. This process involves working closely with the District Attorney and their detectives. Coordination may occur among local police departments, the state police, the FBI, and the United States Marshalls. Also noted is that under Sheriff Morris’s tenure, the Department joined the Monroe County Drug Task Force.
Coordination among law enforcement agencies is illustrated in a recent case involving tracking a person convicted and sentenced for vehicular homicide who fled to Mexico. Through the joint efforts, the individual was extradited to Monroe County to be serve the sentence for his crime.
The Department is also responsible for serving civil service papers such as Protection from Abuse Orders. A major responsibility involves serving the foreclosure papers. Sheriff Morris and his deputies approach this task with concern that the homeowner understands all options. The first step in the process is serving a lengthy foreclosure notice packet, and the deputies make sure that people understand that there may be ways they can be helped to avoid losing their homes. They point out the information to contact the local bar association for free consultation and inform people that there is a mortgage diversion program for which they may be eligible. The Department is doing what it can to help people in their unfortunate circumstances.
Changes during COVID closed the Courthouse and Sheriff’s auctions of foreclosed real estate could not be conducted in person. Typically, monthly auctions were attended by 60-80 people, with 15 – 20 being active bidders. Often the banks were bidding to take the properties back, or real estate flippers were looking for a bargain. Final bids were usually below the market value and lower than the debt held by the property owner.
However, a real paradigm shift has occurred with the use of online auctions through the service of Bid4Assests.com. All auctions going forward are listed and include information of address, amount of debt, and tax ID’s, allowing interested parties to research the properties. And the interest is very high, with listings looked at hundreds to thousands of times. The auctions are held on the last Thursday of the month, but now the bidders are not required to be present. A $750 deposit must be made in order to bid on a property and with world-wide listing, many outside buyers are bidding.
Once sold at auction, the Sheriff’s cost must be met as well as the money owed to the lender holding the mortgage. However, with the increase of property values and the interest in moving to this area, the successful bids have been much higher than the in-house auctions generated. The homeowner is given any money left after costs and debt are covered. In some cases, as much as $20,000 goes to the individual for whom the foreclosure has occurred. (Note: Tax auctions are conducted by the Commissioners, not the Sheriff.)
Much of the work of the Sheriff is administrative and Morris works to create a fiscally sound operation. Going through the budget line by line and restructuring staff responsibilities, he has cut the budget the last three years, yet has been able to increase salaries of his deputies and staff. By cutting waste and streamlining jobs, he remains aware of the need to not take more than what is necessary from the taxpayer. He has found creative ways to fund innovations. For example, the Department acquired a thermal imaging drone by a combination of grant money and donations. Decades of confiscated firearms were stored in a locker and Morris was able to sell them at two auctions, netting more that $23,000 earmarked for training and equipment. The auctions were not open to the public, with bidders being federally licensed to sell firearms.
Outreach to the community plays a huge role in work of the Sheriff’s Department. During COVID, the Department partnered with Meals of Wheels to deliver food to shut ins. The Toy Drive for the holidays has now partnered with Toys for Tots resulting in a broader impact. Morris conducts a holiday fundraiser and donations for AWESOM, a popular no kill animal shelter. He makes sure to respond to invitations throughout the community and his Department is present at numerous events such at the West End Fair. Many events are fun times such as the NAACP Little League Baseball Game that pits the officers against the kids.
Morris examined a trust fund that has been unused since the 1980’s. Originated to help the widow of a slain deputy, upon her passing, the Van Auken Trust Fund sat untouched. With very low interest accrued and the need to pay to have tax returns, it was obvious the trust was slowing losing money. Contacting those responsible for the trust, agreement was reached to dissolve it and disburse. The $38,000 held in the trust was distributed among eleven local charitable and service organizations, a little more than $3,400 each. The efforts of the following organizations benefited : Special Olympics, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, County Little Leagues, VALOR, NAACP, Greg Moyer AED Fund, and the Perryman and Keglovits Foundation.
Sheriff Morris continues to elevate and improve the Department and the goal to receive state accreditation is on track. This rigorous process would result in the highest recognition awarded from the state. The building and renovation project in process will be an important factor in the scoring of the Department’s operation.
Morris has been involved with planning the design of the offices, cells, elevators, intake, holding areas, cameras and other technology to ensure the completed project will meet the highest standards of safety and protection.
The commitment of the Sheriff and his Deputies holds that service comes first. The work of this Department is complex and dangerous. They deserve the appreciation and support of the people of Monroe County.
Thank you to Sheriff Morris and his entire team for their dedication to this important work.