ROX Interview: Sheila Polk – Yavapai County Attorney

Interview by Ray Newton

Sheila Polk, the Yavapai County Attorney since 2001, is a native of Phoenix. She is a member of a large family, one of 13 children. After completing high school, Polk attended Phoenix College for two years, spent her junior year abroad in France, and then finished at Arizona State University (ASU) where she earned a bachelor’s degree in French in 1978. She met her future husband Tom when they were both first year law students at ASU. Polk earned her Juris Doctorate in 1982, became a law clerk to Justice Jack Hays in the Arizona Supreme Court. She moved into an assistant attorney general position for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, a role she held for 11 years.

In 1994, Polk moved to Prescott (her husband’s hometown), where she became a deputy county attorney and specialized in the prosecution of felony crimes. In 2000, she became the first woman ever to be elected as Yavapai County Attorney. She currently is completing her fifth term.

A member of several major legal councils and commissions, she is chairwoman of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission; chairwoman of the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council; and is a member of the Governor’s Arizona Human Trafficking Council.

Among her points of pride are being a founder of MATFORCE (the county substance abuse coalition) and a founder and driving stimulus behind the nationally recognized law enforcement course “What You Do Matters: Lessons from the Holocaust.”

Polk has earned a reputation as an excellent public speaker. She has made presentations in Arizona and at meetings throughout the U.S. Her list of scholarly and legal publications is equally impressive. She is a frequent contributor to editorial columns in newspapers and magazines.

She and her husband, a practicing attorney in Prescott, have three adult sons, all attorneys. Polk smiles broadly when she shares the latest addition to her family — grandson, Luca John Polk, barely 8 months.

Prescott LIVING: Sheila, you’re an Arizona native. Give us a little background about your youth..

Sheila Polk: Well, I was born and raised in the central Phoenix area. I have what I think is a pretty unique and extraordinary family. My parents had 10 biological children, and then they adopted three more who are of mixed race. I grew up in this very large, diverse family with extraordinary parents who loved travel and adventure.

When I was 3 years old, there were eight of us then. In 1959, my parents took all of us in a camper that my dad built, down into Mexico for six months. My older siblings actually went to school while we were there. We just did a lot of camping and traveling, particularly in Mexico. We’re still incredibly close.

Prescott LIVING: In your early adult years, you attended ASU?

Sheila Polk: Actually, I went to Phoenix College for two years. Then I went abroad my junior year to study in France. I came back and finished up at ASU as an undergrad with a degree in French. Then I went to law school at ASU. That’s where I met my husband, Tom.

Prescott LIVING: What took you from French to law?

Sheila Polk: Oh, it was purely serendipitous. When I had that degree in French, my sister and I were sharing a room. She was dating someone in law school, who’s now her husband. She came home one day and said, “Sheila, I think you should become a lawyer. I was looking at his law books and they look so interesting. I think you would really like it.”

I remember saying, “Oh Mary, I couldn’t be a lawyer, I’m not like them.” I had this picture of that corporate lawyer and that was never me. But she kept saying “No, really.” So I finally said, “Well OK, I’m going to take that LSAT and apply to ASU, and if I get in then I’m going to go, but I won’t apply anywhere else, so I’ll just see what happens.” And I got in. I loved law school from the very beginning. I met Tom there that very first semester. He is a native of Prescott. That might be why I loved law school! (laughs)

Prescott LIVING: You moved to Yavapai County and joined the county attorney’s office in 1994. What were your primary responsibilities?

Sheila Polk: The county attorney’s office performs two basic functions. We are the legal advisers for county government; and we prosecute all the felonies, juvenile offenders and misdemeanors that are in the unincorporated areas.

I actually began in our civil division. I did that for three years. Then I switched to the criminal division, which I did for the next four years. In 2000, I ran for county attorney.

Prescott LIVING: What prompted you to run for county attorney?

Sheila Polk: I never viewed the position of county attorney as very political.

But after living here seven years and working on both sides of the office, when my predecessor Chick Hastings announced he was not going to run, I started thinking about it as a possibility. I thought about what my qualifications were. Then I thought about this opportunity to be more at a policy-making level for the office and an opportunity to figure out how to best use my talents.

I admire Chick Hastings to this day. He was county attorney for 20 years. I really respect him. He still works here, by the way. He retired, but about six months later he came back and said he’d be interested in doing some part-time work. The last 18 years, he has worked at our charging division, helping charge criminal cases as they come in the door. Isn’t that remarkable?

At the time, Chick said to me, “I’m here to give you advice if you would like it, but I am not here to tell you what to do. You are the county attorney.” He has held to that word. He was always very respectful of the way I was running the office, always there to assist if I asked. He never offered anything unsolicited.

Prescott LIVING: You’ve been here 18 years. What have been some of your satisfactions?

Sheila Polk: When I reflect back on my years as county attorney, there are three things that I’m particularly proud of.

First I have to start with the people in this office. I just feel so lucky to have so many incredible people who want to work here, from the attorneys through all the administrative professionals. It’s a place where I love to come. I feel so lucky to work with people who are so good and so well-intentioned, who are part of our bigger mission of making the community safe, being part of public safety. And not everybody gets to say that about their work environment.

The other two pertain to particular projects. One is MATFORCE. Another is the Holocaust training that I do. Both of those have come about as a result of partnerships in the community.

Prescott LIVING: Tell me about MATFORCE.

Sheila Polk: We formed MATFORCE in 2006 as a response to the methamphetamine crisis. What was unique about MATFORCE was there was a group of leaders at the table saying, “We don’t have solutions. But we know that government alone is not going to solve this substance abuse problem.”

That was my first involvement in a community coalition, which is what MATFORCE eventually became. It’s the result of government, business, private and nonprofit partnerships where everyone comes together to be part of looking for solutions to drug problems in our community. The executive director, Merilee Fowler, is an incredibly talented and dedicated person.

But it’s not just the work of one person. We have all these fingers out in the community. At any given time, MATFORCE has about 300 very active volunteers who are trying to prevent or intervene on the drug problem to make our community safer. And back in 2006, when we first started MATFORCE, mostly we were just sitting in a room saying, “We don’t know what to do.”

I had no vision what was going to come of that first conversation we had, but I do recall that I had a sense of relief from realizing that so many people were working together to solve the problem. All these different agencies were suffering the effects of methamphetamine in different ways. For me, that was really the first experience of a collaborative approach to a problem instead of the county attorney having answers. It really was the county attorney had no answers!

Together we’re going to tackle this, and we’re going to see what happens. Just so many amazing things have come as a result of our willingness to say, “We don’t have the answers,” but we’re going to go out to the community, and we’re going to do something together.

In 2013, and I don’t take credit for this, MATFORCE won the national coalition of the year award.

Prescott LIVING: MATFORCE is unique in Arizona. You’re being imitated. People in Flagstaff are using it as a model.

Sheila Polk: Yes, other communities have substance abuse coalitions. But I think MATFORCE is the only one where we have so many high-level folks who are sitting at the table with anyone who wants to be part of the solution. We’ve got people in recovery who sit at the same table as our sheriff, for example. But the philosophy of MATFORCE is that everyone can be part of the solution. All ideas are welcome. No one’s going to be rejected.

Prescott LIVING: Let’s look at another of your satisfactions. What is Yavapai Reentry?

Sheila Polk: It’s a program within MATFORCE that’s focusing on reducing recidivism. We reach out to inmates who are leaving Arizona prisons and have indicated they’re coming back to Yavapai County. About six months before they are eligible for release, they’ll receive information about Yavapai Reentry, and they have the opportunity to fill out something that says, “Yes, I want more information.”

Our Reentry program is a great example of sharing the solution. The woman who came up with the idea for Reentry was an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer with MATFORCE that year. We said, “Let’s go for it.”

She developed and put together the model. But Yavapai Reentry is a model for the state, as well.

The Reentry program matches that person with a community volunteer who’s going to be the mentor to guide them back into successful reentry. The mentor is there to listen. If they’re tempted to use drugs again, and they need someone to talk to, that person talks it through with them.

Through Reentry, we try to connect them with housing, transportation, how to enroll in school, how to qualify for benefits and have their rights restored. Just anything to help these folks who have served their time to come back and be a productive member of the community, instead of somebody who’s more likely to fail and go back to prison.

I love the Reentry program. By way of example of how great it feels for that person leaving prison, we ask them to come by the MATFORCE office. And when they do, they get a welcome-home basket, which I just think feels so good. It has hygiene products, a Walmart gift card.

Most people coming out of prison don’t expect to get a welcome-home basket. We’re just trying to make them feel like they’re part of the community.

The program is run on a shoestring budget. We’ve two wonderful staff members, Amy Marshall and Brenda Buenrostro, who work with participants and help them work with their volunteer community mentors.

Prescott LIVING: You mention No. 3, the Holocaust project. Tell us about that. You started something that’s become national.

Sheila Polk: The Holocaust project is phenomenal. Not because of me, but I think because of what it’s done for me. I’ll tell you this story. In late 2005, I’d been county attorney for about four years. Members of the Jewish Community Foundation had made an appointment to see me. Three members asked if I would go to Washington, D.C. to the Holocaust Museum and participate in a course called “Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons from the Holocaust.”

I said, “What does the Holocaust have to do with me?” I said it respectfully, I hope. I also said, “You know, is there a problem in my office that you want me to go?” They said, “No, we’re sending a group of civic leaders back to have the experience.”

I earlier had developed the philosophy that I’m going to say “yes” to new experiences unless I can articulate a reason to say “no.” That’s the only reason I said “yes.” At the time, I saw no relevance to what I do as county attorney.

I went there in March of 2006, spent the day in the museum, took the museum’s course. It was a transformational experience where the lightbulb went off for me, where I totally understood the relevance of the Holocaust and police involvement in the Holocaust to how we do our job in the U.S. as criminal justice professionals.

I went back to my hotel room. I couldn’t sleep. By the next morning, I just thought, “I want this program for my prosecutors.” That was my burning desire.

We had to meet in the lobby to get back to the airport. I kept tugging at the sleeve of David Hess, president of the Jewish Community Foundation, saying, “David, I need to talk to you.” He kept saying, “Wait, I’ve got to get everyone on the bus to the airport.” I’m normally not that pushy. David finally said, “I’ll ride on the bus with you, Sheila.”

When we rode the bus to the airport, I told him, “We need to figure out how to bring this to Arizona.” Within a couple days, I was thinking I want this for all law enforcement officers and prosecutors in Arizona. I mean, it was that fast, where I just was so passionate about this program. Typically, I’m calm in all situations, but I just felt on fire!

David reached back to the museum and we started having some conversations and meetings about how to create a program like the museum was teaching. The museum said, yes, it would work with us. To this day, I find that very remarkable. We’re just a small community here in northern Arizona, and the Holocaust Museum was willing to work with us.

Finally, in 2012, we began teaching our version of the course in Yavapai County. Just two of us were teaching — Doug Bartosh, just retired as the city manager for Cottonwood, and myself. We were teaching two classes a month for two years to our criminal justice professionals, law enforcement officers and prosecutors. Toward the end of 2014, the state organization that certifies peace officers, called AZPOST, heard what we were doing and they came up, watched the class. Then they said, “You know, we’d love it if you could teach this statewide.”

We had a similar experience with the statewide prosecutor’s association. In 2014, we did a train-the-trainer course and trained 10 more teams so we could teach our course statewide. We’ve now taught more than 5,000 criminal justice professionals.

Most people who think about the Holocaust think about the period of the mass killings. This course instead focuses its three-and-a-half hours on 1933 to 1942, which precedes the mass killings. Specifically, we look at a series of photographic images that depict policing from 1933 to 1942. What we are teaching, really, is the slippery slope, to examine how it was that in nine short years, police in Germany transitioned from protectors of the people to enforcers of Nazi ideology. Ultimately, they were collaborators, actively participating in the mobile killing squads. What we’re learning from this is the activity of policing stayed the same, but the purpose shifted to ultimately deprive, isolate and then kill the Jews and others in the Holocaust.

That’s the bulk of the class. Then we ask, “Are there lessons for us?” It’s a very hands-on interactive class, where the students have studied this history and understand this incremental change. Then they identify for themselves if there is something that’s relevant about this to them.

That’s probably the most powerful part of the class, when the students are identifying what the lessons are. Typically, what they’ll identify is the need to speak up, that silence can be complicity. That if you start taking shortcuts, you open yourself up to an environment within yourself where you’re willing to commit further and further transgressions.

Ultimately, what we identify is that we in law enforcement take an oath of office to defend and protect the Constitution. That means defending and protecting those rights for everybody, including suspects and the accused. The importance of doing that job well at all times, whether the public is watching us or not, is a really powerful core principle of our course.

Prescott LIVING: Do you have any disappointments in your role as county attorney?

Sheila Polk: I really don’t. I had a revelation fairly early on that I did not have to have answers as county attorney, but what I needed are good, thoughtful, independent thinking people around me. I have an amazing management team. I have told them point blank, “Your job is not to agree with me. We need to be doing the right thing, and everybody’s got a voice.” Most decisions we make are made collectively.

I feel fortunate that very early on, I figured out that you can be a successful leader by sharing decision-making and really leaning on good people around you. It’s a management style that has really freed me up to make good things happen.

Prescott LIVING: How big a professional staff do you have?

Sheila Polk: About 100 employees here; 31 attorneys, plus litigation specialists, victim advocates and investigators. We have a very modern office and have gone to electronic case files. When you see attorneys in the court room, they’ll be sitting there with a laptop.

Prescott LIVING: How often do you meet with staff?

Sheila Polk: I try to meet with the entire office once a month. We call them “all hands meetings,” and they are fun. We video-conference because we have an office in the Verde Valley. My favorite part of that meeting is a time to give kudos to one another. I ask folks to recognize those things that others have done during the month that are above or beyond. Then we recognize if people have had jury trials over the month, talk a little bit about those cases.

Prescott LIVING: How big an annual budget do you have, and from where?

Sheila Polk: It is now close to $8 million. The primary source is the County General Fund. A secondary source is both state and federal grant funds.

Prescott LIVING: Do you have enough money?

Sheila Polk: (laughs) I would say for the most part, yes. I really try to be fiscally conservative, to look at the job we have to do and then do it with the minimal budget possible. We’re staying up with the demand. So I’m grateful to the county board of supervisors. We have a county that’s very supportive of law enforcement.

Prescott LIVING: What’s the biggest challenge that you face as county attorney?

Sheila Polk: Making sure the public understands how things work versus the myths about how things work. I’ll give you a few examples. Every year there’s an effort to pass new laws. The criminal justice system gets a lot of attention. Wherever I go I hear myths like, “Our prisons are filled with people who did nothing other than use marijuana,” which is a complete falsehood.

I spend a lot of time writing columns trying to explain how the system really works and talking on topics of criminal justice, trying to sift the myths from the facts and then make my case for why I think certain things should be done a certain way. For example, keeping the truth in our sentencing laws and not going back to days when the sentence a judge meted out really meant nothing.

Prescott LIVING: Does the Legislature understand the legal process?

Sheila Polk: It really depends. I try to have a good relationship with members of the Legislature, particularly the judiciary committees. I think the longer members have been there, they do understand the process. But we have freshman legislators every year. They want to understand. Their challenge is they have a lot coming at them in a short period of time, and so truly understanding the merits, the pros and cons, what does this bill really do, is their challenge. My challenge is finding time to help them understand.

Prescott LIVING: Have you ever considered becoming a judge?

Sheila Polk: I actually applied for a position on the Court of Appeals. It was back in 2006. I made the final three, but I was not selected. Then shortly after, the Holocaust Program happened and we were in the process of forming MATFORCE. So, when I reflect back, I’m grateful.

Prescott LIVING: Have you thought about going higher politically?

Sheila Polk: People ask me that. I always say no. And my reason is, I feel like my sphere of influence in this current position is endless. The things I’ve wanted to do I’ve been able to accomplish and will continue to be able to do. I love Prescott and Yavapai County. The idea of moving on to something higher that would make me move to a big city where I came from and purposely left– I just have no interest in doing that.

Prescott LIVING: Let’s take Sheila Polk out of her professional role. What kinds of things do you do with your family?

Sheila Polk: We do a lot of active stuff. I love sports. I play racquetball when I can. I just started playing pickleball lately. When my husband and I are alone, we take our dog out, and we do a lot of hiking. So, between work and being active, you know, there’s not a whole lot of time.

We have three married sons. We now have a grandson who’s 8 months old. So it’s just about spending time with family, and, of course, my larger family, a lot of them still here in Arizona.

Prescott LIVING: How did you influence your children? Incredibly, all three of them are attorneys!

Sheila Polk: I know, all three! Can you believe it? The thing is that neither Tom nor I were ever pushy about their becoming lawyers. All three boys were very science, math, computer oriented. And then, one by one, each announced that he wanted to go to law school. John, our oldest son, is a tax attorney who primarily does taxes, trusts, and financial transactions. He practices both in Phoenix and Prescott. His law office, at Gurley and Marina, is called Tax Innovations and Practical Solutions (Tax TIPS). Our middle son Stephen focuses on government law, medical law, and business transactions with Boyle, Pecharich, Cline, Whittington & Stallings here in Prescott. Matthew, our youngest son, is a prosecutor with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix.

Prescott LIVING: Do you have hobbies? Do you crochet, make quilts, paint?

Sheila Polk: I love to read. I own a sewing machine. I’ve actually used it maybe once in the past year. I have my list of things to do when I retire. And the things I would love to do include everything you just said, plus art. I’m pretty fluent in Spanish so I do Spanish lessons over Skype, which I love.

Prescott LIVING: What makes you really burst out in laughter?

Sheila Polk: I love a sense of humor, and I love comedy. In fact, I think because what I do is so serious that when we’re going to watch a movie my husband knows I only really want to watch comedy.

Prescott LIVING: What kind of books do you read?

Sheila Polk: I usually have a couple books going. I’ll have kind of a light novel going, and then I’ll have something that’s heavier. Then with my car travel, I listen to a lot of books on tape.

Prescott LIVING: Getting serious again. If you could wave your magic wand, what changes would you make in the legal system?

Sheila Polk: The change I would make is more societal than legal. I just think mind-altering drugs are so insidious. They’re just so damaging. I see so much harm to individuals and families and children and systems. So if I had a magic wand, it would be to get rid of them.

Prescott LIVING: Is there anything you would like the readers to know about you that we haven’t covered.

Sheila Polk: I’ve said it. I love Prescott. I love the work I do. I literally wake up feeling so lucky that my youth, my education and my career path led me to this position where I get to live and work in a community I love, work with people I love and admire. I work really hard. It’s this job that keeps giving back, it is just so fulfilling. I’m never giving up Prescott and Yavapai County for anything. This is where we’re going to be forever!