On Dec. 1, 2016, Chris Bryant was sworn into office as the sheriff of Carter County, taking office earlier than normal due to his predecessor resigning from the position after entering a guilty plea in district court to felony bribery charges.
Bryant was thrust into office without the customary transition period where the previous administration hands over control and a few words of advice. He also ran unopposed for the seat after winning the primary by more than 65 percent of the vote.
Bryant inherited a department tainted by scandal that would later be named in three separate civil lawsuits stemming from his predecessor’s time in office, and a jail faced with chronic understaffing and overcrowding.
“There were a lot of hurdles to overcome, a lot of financial hurdles to overcome when we came in,” Bryant said. “Getting everybody lined up in one direction and
moving to the same common goal was easier than expected. But with the strong leadership that we have here and the willingness of people to try and make a difference and change, we have been able to overcome a lot of obstacles. We’ve had positive progress and positive responses throughout the county in the direction we are moving.”
Another challenge facing Bryant early in his term was rebuilding or, in some cases, developing relationships with state, federal and municipal law enforcement agencies throughout the county. Territorial or jurisdiction disputes are something Bryant said he wanted to avoid when interacting with other agencies, most of which rely on the Sheriff’s Department for backup, dispatch and jail services.
Shortly after taking office, Bryant signed an agreement with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation making OSBI the lead investigator on any officer-related shootings involving county deputies, the first such agreement in the state.
“Those relationships had been strained, but with a positive attitude and being proactive instead of reactive it has allowed us to cover ground quickly so they know we are here to help anyone and everybody,” Bryant said.
Prior to taking office, Bryant had spent more than 16 years as a reserve deputy, but the bulk of his professional work experience was in business management. In 2009, Bryant was hired as the manager for the Ardmore Industrial Airpark, which included all Ardmore Development Authority facilities, experience he was able to use in his position as sheriff.
“The biggest challenge has been the budget,” Bryant said. “We had some staggering numbers that we had to overcome… The decline in sales tax revenues has hurt us a little bit, but we have a good business plan set up for the future to help us do everything we can to bridge that gap and to get as much out of every penny that we can.”
Bryant credits his staff for easing his transition into office and the experience Undersheriff Gus Handke brings to the position for allowing him focus on “sliming up” the finances of the department. Handke returned to the department after a brief absence to serve under Interim Sheriff John Ryan — who was appointed to the position after the former sheriff agreed to a voluntary suspension —  and stayed on under Bryant.
“Being on the business side, a lot of people look at the sheriff’s office as just a law enforcement entity,” Bryant said. “There’s two sides to it, a law enforcement side and a business administration side.”
The Carter County Jail’s recommended capacity is 186 inmates, though Bryant said the jail generally stays closer to 250 inmates which causes additional strain on an office responsible for the housing, feeding and healthcare of inmates.
“It was at 274 when I took office,” Bryant said. “We are constantly working on trying to get that number down, and it goes along with what’s going on throughout the state. My overcrowding is minor compared to some of the other counties that are busting at the seams.”
Bryant said he was able to address some of his budgeting issues by reviewing policies and adapting them to better fit the needs of department while respecting the rights of the inmates.  
“The food bills were astronomically high,” Bryant said. “Sometimes they were as high as $29,000 a month. I’ve cut it back to $9-10,000. We cut back on what we are feeding them. We still meet the nutritional guidelines required by the health department…  We can still meet these needs, but we don’t need all the name brands. We don’t need the top-notch food that they had. This is jail, this is not the Hilton. Some of the food they were eating here was better than the food we are eating at home.”
Bryant also shifted the department’s spending policy to a local approach by seeking out competitive prices from local vendors.
“Just about everything we are doing is local,” Bryant said. “We are always looking for ways to slim it down a little more and contribute back into the economy of Ardmore and Carter County. Buy local, keep it local. Even stuff that we can’t get locally, we will reach out to the local vendors to see if they can get it.”
Bryant said the logistical aspect of the department can be staggering. The office generally has 2-3 deputies out on patrol at any given moment, with more pitching in when needed, to cover the 834-square mile county with more than 48,000 permanent residents.
“I need every soul I’ve got,” Bryant said. “I need every patrol person I’ve got. We have transport guys often taking calls when we are overloaded. The undersherrif and myself are also out taking calls… I’m understaffed as it is. We were trying to increase it this year but were unable to do so with the budget issues.”
Bryant has also pushed for the sell of county vehicles while still under warranty in an effort to increase the vehicle’s value while reducing maintenance and upkeep cost to save the department money in the long run.
Looking forward, Bryant said the department would continue to address ongoing budgeting issues while dealing with the consequences of decisions made at the statehouse.
“With the way the state economy is right now, the budget will be the biggest hurdle,” Bryant said. “Mental health is a big issue, and that is part of why our overcrowding is where it is right now. It’s all related. Mental health is such a key role on the law enforcement side, and I think it’s pretty much statewide. (State questions) 780 and 781 are not a benefit to Oklahoma and are definitely a hindrance to law enforcement. Without the rehab centers, the county jail is now the rehab center. (The laws) needs to be revamped. This is a state issue and we are all involved in it, but pushing it down to the county and city isn’t how you fix it. We need to have a better emphasis on the drugs that are killing people and that are so addictive. We need help, especially with the mental health element. Once those drugs get their hooks in you, you can’t get them out and that is something we’ve seen only get worse over the years. We know the problems, now we need a solution.”