PITTSBURG, Kan. — Sandy Horton grew up in Crawford County and began his 33-year career with the local sheriff’s department while still attending Pittsburg High School. For the last 17 years of that career, Horton headed the sheriff’s office before retiring in January 2013. But even after retiring, Horton has remained active in the world of law enforcement as executive director of the Kansas Sheriff’s Association.

Last week, Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced that the former Crawford County sheriff has been appointed to a new advisory board to support the operations of the Kansas Victim Information and Notification Everyday (VINE) system.

“This partnership and infrastructure is important as we do all we can to inform and assist crime victims," Schmidt said in a press release. "I am confident the VINE Advisory Board will keep the project focused on victims and will be responsive to their needs and concerns.”

Horton “was instrumental in the implementation” of the VINE system, according to a press release from last year, when Schmidt presented Horton with the Outstanding Statewide Champion Law Enforcement Award. VINE, which allows victims of domestic violence and other crimes to receive automatic notifications if their abuser is released from jail, is now active in 95 jails statewide after Appriss Insights, the company that hosts the program, initially approached Horton about it several years ago when he was still sheriff.

“I had a high interest in participating,” Horton says. “I thought that would be a wonderful tool for victims to be notified automatically when inmates are getting out of jail where that’s someone accused of domestic battery or similar crimes where you have a victim and a suspect arrested and taken to jail, and for victims’ safety and awareness how nice it would be to be able to automatically communicate that to the victim.”

The sheriff’s office already had a process at the time for attempting to notify victims or victims’ rights advocates when their abusers were being released, Horton says, but it didn’t always go smoothly.

“So when the inmate was going to be released from jail we would see that in the folder, we would pick the phone up and call — and if the person picked up the phone that was great, we made notifications,” he says. “But sometimes that didn’t happen.”

Deputies would leave a message and make a note to call the person back, but would then move on to other jail business such as feeding inmates or distributing medications.

“So then by the time you get back to making the phone call, you know, you have a potential of a lot of time passing by, and that would affect — at least in my opinion — the victim’s safety, so that’s why it was such an impressive tool,” Horton says.

Wyandotte County was first the county in Kansas to implement VINE — which allows victims or their advocates to receive notifications by phone, email, text message, or all three — and the system came online in Crawford County in December of 2017.

“It’s been quite the challenge but Appriss is a great company to work with and we’re just excited to be where we’re at,” Horton says of the effort to implement the notification system across the state in recent years. Initial funding for that effort came from a federal grant through the Kansas Department of Labor, he added, while the bulk of funding now comes from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Besides Horton, other members of the new Kansas VINE Advisory Board include Jennifer Hecker, executive director of Options Domestic and Sexual Violence Services, Inc., Detective Melissa Burns of the Wichita Police Department, Erin Kelley, senior Medicaid manager for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and Joan Proctor, VINE coordinator with the Victim Services Division of the Office of the Attorney General. The board will look for ways to increase awareness of Kansas VINE statewide and strengthen it as a resource for victims.

“The awarenesss would need to really to be with both law enforcement statewide and with the citizens of Kansas so they know that this system’s out there,” Horton says. “We’ve conducted regional meetings for the past two years across the state. We’d really like to see VINE as part of the basic training curriculum, at least the awareness for law enforcement going through basic training that this system is statewide now.”

In terms of further developing VINE as a resource for victims, Horton says there are optional features that can be added to the program.

“Sometimes you can put data in there on whether protection from abuse orders have been served and get notification. There’s just a lot of different things that go beyond the basic notification that we’d like to look at,” he says.

“But you know, basically one of the first things, challenges that we have is we need to find sustained funding for this year-round. This has to be maintained. There’s a 1-800 phone number for Kansas line. If somebody calls that there’s a real person in Louisville, Kentucky at Appriss headquarters that answers that phone 24/7, so there’s updates that are provided, there’s just a lot of things that need to be done,” Horton says.

He estimates the cost of maintaining the VINE system statewide is at least half a million dollars per year.

“So there’s an annual, you know, cost to keeping VINE implemented that we need to find a true funding source for, so there’s a lot of work to do,” Horton says.

Since retiring as Crawford County sheriff, Horton has missed much of the law enforcement work he used to do, he says, but being executive director of the Kansas Sheriff’s Association has also become “more than a full-time job at this point.” Aside from VINE, other initiatives the Sheriff’s Association continues to work on include the Seatbelts Are For Everyone (SAFE) program, which promotes seatbelt use by teenagers, and the Booster To Belts program, which encourages children in grades K through 3 to learn the importance of buckling up and using booster seats.

“I’m very proud of my service to our county and to the state,” Horton says.

“I did retire as sheriff of Crawford County, but that moved me straight into sheriff issues on a statewide basis, so I’m still doing what I think I should and have always wanted to do.”