With more than 32 years in law enforcement, Jeff Balon said he still gets up with a smile on his face in the morning and looks forward to going to work. He attributes his longevity on the job to both of his families - his family at home and his family at the Porter County Sheriff's Office.
At home, Balon enjoys family time with wife Katie and three adult children Nicolette, Ella and Harrison. They are a close-knit bunch after having gone through the loss of son and brother Ty at the age of 25. As a child, Ty had been diagnosed with epilepsy. He passed away in his sleep in March 2021 due to a seizure. While the family enjoys many outdoor activities together, they especially look forward to snow skiing in the wintertime and boating on Lake Michigan during the summer months.
On the job, Balon is in his first year in office as Porter County Sheriff after having served for more than 30 years as an officer with the Valparaiso Police Department. He was chief of police prior to being elected as sheriff. Priorities of his office have been developing strong community outreach programs and continuing to work on officer training, wellness and recruitment.
“As sheriff, I'm having a tremendous time working with other police agencies around the county and building relationships,” Balon said. “As it is my first year, there is a lot of planning and organizing going into place for all these agencies to work together.”
According to Balon, one of the programs that he is most proud of during his first year at the sheriff's office is the establishment of a police social worker program.
“Our police social worker is not a police officer, but a social worker with a master's degree,” Balon said. “This social worker is especially helpful as a liaison between other area police agencies and outreach programming. This representative serves as a bridge–for those who are wanderers, people with special needs, cases of substance abuse and dependency, homelessness, and those with mental health issues–to get help and resources. Our officers are often instrumental in referring cases to the social workers.”
From his previous experience with the program at Valparaiso, Balon said the addition of the social worker has made strides on substance abuse and dependency, homelessness, and mental health issues. They also work with the elderly and dementia patients, as well as children involved with cases of domestic violence.
“It had such a great impact that I knew I wanted to bring this program to the sheriff's office with the intent of expanding county-wide,” Balon said. “This past spring, both the commissioners and the council voted 100% to fund the initiative. What is progressive about our social worker program is that they are not only working with people outside of jail, but also with our program staff inside the jail.”
Along with the police social worker out in the community, Balon said there are two behavioral specialists and two program specialists inside the jail for all the various programs and classes that are offered to inmates.
“Together, this support team works hand-in-hand to better transition inmates from the jail to life outside jail,” Balon said. “That includes getting people into programs, housing, treatment, whatever support they need to succeed once their time is complete. I feel it is really making a difference. Other agencies see the value in the approach and are reaching out to find out more about the program.”
Balon said that the sheriff's department also is expanding its wellness division.
“The wellness division was already in place when I took office as sheriff,” Balon said. “We are building on that program and bringing in professional counseling that is accessible to all employees. It's important to better engage and take care of our officers. Our officers not only need to be mentally fit because they are often working with citizens on the worst days of their lives, they need to be physically fit as well to address the challenges of police work. Statistics show that someone who is mentally and physically fit will go into a situation calmer and with more confidence, and that confidence can lower their stress.”
Balon said the department is in the middle of converting a large area of the sheriff's dispatch center into a fitness center/gym area.
“If we are going to expect our officers to be physically fit, we need to provide them with the appropriate equipment and environment to meet that goal,” he said. “We also want to ensure that our officers feel valued as employees and have a voice. We sit down on an annual basis and discuss what we are doing that is right and what we can do better, how we grow and what programs we need to add. They participate, and we get buy-in because they are part of our growth and development.”
In addition, the Porter County Sheriff's Office is always looking at how to better train members of the agency, often by better connecting them with the specialty areas they want to learn more about.
“There are around 180 employees in the sheriff's office,” Balon said. “We have several officers with 20 plus years, but we also have some turnover. A lot of jail officers want to be police officers. While the jail is a good training ground for future officers, we have to look at retention and make sure there are other opportunities for jail staff who want to stay in corrections, such as a special investigations unit in the jail or a crisis response team. We are in talks with Ivy Tech to develop possible solutions.”
Balon's office also continues to focus on enhancing its recruitment program.
“We do that through social media, job fairs and campus visits,” Balon said. “I believe it starts with me - going to these functions, engaging with civic organizations and outside groups so that they know what my position or stance is on building a better community. It is about transparency, it's about inclusion; it's about networking.”
Balon said it is vital that residents trust the police. It is important that the police respond to those who call in with confidentiality and discreteness to build that trust.
“Community outreach is imperative for the sheriff's office,” Balon said. “If you have a community who has strong engagement with its law enforcement, you have a community that usually has a lower crime rate.”
One way he tries to connect to the public is through the patrol officers in the department. Balon works on the road a few days a month with officers and responds to citizen calls. Within the sheriff's department, he also makes rounds to the jail speaking to jail officers and inmates.
“We want to offer 'community' outreach in a way that hopefully resonates not only with my staff, but with residents as well,” Balon said. “It's about building relationships. It's putting the 'person' first and foremost into the police. Our officers live and work in the same community, so it's important the community recognizes they also are part of the same neighborhood.”
Neighborhood connections are crucial for the neighbors and residents in Porter County communities because they help build a foundation of trust.
“We are here to make a difference in our communities, we are here to engage with our citizens, we are here to reduce crime, and we are here to send a message that crime is not tolerated in Porter County,” Balon said. “Porter County is a safe county, and we want to keep it that way. I am honored to be the Porter County sheriff and part of making this community a safer place to live.”