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Sheriff's candidates diverge on training center, animal control, body cams

Sheriff Charlie McDonald and challenger Lowell Griffin met in a candidate forum last week. Sheriff Charlie McDonald and challenger Lowell Griffin met in a candidate forum last week.

Sheriff Charlie McDonald and challenger Lowell Griffin squared off during a campaign forum last week at Blue Ridge Community College, fielding questions on the proposed law enforcement training center, responsiveness to the Latino community, arming teachers, animal control, sheriff’s personnel turnover and the use of body cameras.

McDonald and Griffin meet in the May 8 primary, with the winner going on to serve as sheriff for the next four years barring an unprecedented write-in campaign. No Democrat filed to run.
Among Griffin’s priorities are plans to reassign supervisors to patrol duties so they get to know the community better, develop joint law enforcement task forces “to multiply our manpower without adding a burden to the taxpayer,” develop “a process where we have job security and lower the turnover rate at the sheriff’s office” and add body cameras.
“Imagine having a community where you knew who was in charge of your community” in police protection, he said in closing remarks. “We need these officers back out here in your community, responsive to you, able to identify problems areas, able to make a difference … We need to revisit our relationships (with neighboring agencies). I want to bring job security to the sheriff’s office. We talked about the turnover, the money associated with the turnover.”
McDonald touted reforms that he said has transformed the sheriff’s office into a “premier law enforcement agency” from the one he took over amid turmoil in 2012 following the resignation the previous November of Sheriff Rick Davis.
“We have buried once and for all the good ol’ body system that inevitably leads to inefficiency and corruption,” McDonald said. Strategic policing has “enabled us to exceed our crime reduction goals five years in a row.”
“We are leading the charge to improve school safety for our most precious resources — our children and our grandchildren,” he said.
“Despite what’s being said by those with axes to grind, I would submit that we can’t afford to turn back,” he said in closing. “We’ve shown Henderson County what can be accomplished when an agency comes together as a team to accept necessary change, embrace best practices and organizational management. Morale is high, our staff is well-trained.”
Here is the candidate Q&A:

 

What’s your position on the law enforcement training center?

McDonald: “The $20 million training center was never my idea, was never anything I asked for. I asked for an outdoor training facility and outdoor range area multiple times actually. The commissioners in trying to help facilitate our ability to train sought the services of architects that came up with a proposal that would cost $22 million. I talked to commissioners a year ago, one or two at a time, and asked them to table the current proposal at Blue Ridge Community College while we tried to find some land to do something outside. We’re asking our men and women to do more and more and to be trained to a higher level of efficiency. I think everybody understands law enforcement needs to have the ability to train realistically in rapidly evolving situations so they can practice critical decision skills and combat tactics. The only way they can do that is to have a full-service training center where we can have force-on-force options and the ability for officers to train in more than one direction at a time.”

Griffin: He became aware of a training facility in Alabama with “different concrete structures, bare bones, very cheap. They’ve created a village (that has) a mock post office, a convenience store, residential structures. With this village, we can employ different weapon systems besides the live fire. We can use that for static targets as well as force-on-force training. If we do this right, we can create a village that becomes a total emergency services training area. … If we decide to go with an outdoor training center, we’ve got to have transparent studies that show the effect on the quality of life of everyone that may be around or affected by that. There are a lot of options. I think we really need to slow down and discuss and choose what’s right.”

What are your plans for school safety?

McDonald: Shortly after the Sandy Hook shootings, “We put together the adopt-a-school program. Deputies, detectives would go to schools during unannounced times of the day. As we had this last incident in Parkland, quickly we changed the rules about getting folks to be at the schools. We also got permission to pay our off-duty guys to go into these schools that don’t have a standing SRO. In the meantime, Henderson County is going to release money to hire the school resources deputies that we need (next school year).”

Griffin: “There’s no bankful of gold anywhere in the world that is worth more than one child is. This was a topic of debate four years ago in this Republican primary. And I agree there has to be a collaborative effort between law enforcement, the school administration and the Board of Education. I know there needs to be some training inside these facilities. We need to practice lockdowns. These officers can have role model in the schools, somebody that can actually spot problems that these children have, even outside the schools.”

What is your position on arming teachers?

McDonald: “No. 1, it’s not legal in North Carolina. I’ve talked to teachers who don’t want to carry guns and don’t think they should have to. I’ve talk to other teachers who have conceal-carry and would like to be able to and feel like they would be that last line of defense if an active shooter comes into their classroom. I think there’s a place for that. The most responsive law enforcement can get there within three minutes. The SRO may be halfway across the campus. I think armed teachers, properly trained and properly vetted, should be allowed.”

Griffin: “It’s one thing to carry a gun. It’s another thing to have the mindset to actually use that gun in the use of deadly force. Not all teachers probably qualify to carry a gun and discharge it safely in the chaos when there’s a crisis going on at the school. It has to be a collaborative effort to identify a teacher who has the mindset, who has the skills to maintain the security of a weapon on the school grounds and to be able to discharge that weapon in a manner that’s not going to put anybody else in danger should a crisis occur. I do agree there are those that are capable of doing that.”

Why doesn’t the sheriff’s office enforce animal control inside cities?

McDonald: “Because it’s illegal.” A citizen complained that the sheriff’s office is not authorized to enforce city ordinances “and basically said we were kidnapping animals. … We don’t have the legal authority to do that” except through an agreement between the city and county. Cities chose not to pay for the service from the county. “I think the county and the municipalities would be better off if we did it all. It’s easier on the animal shelter, it’s easier on the health department and it’s easier on our deputies. The problem is we can’t do it when we don’t have the resources. The bottom line, this has nothing to do with my stance. It really rests on the Board of Commissioners and I support why they took the position that they did.”

Griffin: “Folks in the municipalities, they pay county taxes, too. I would like to go back to the Board of Commissioners, work with the municipalities and work out an agreement to where we could enforce these animal enforcement laws inside the municipalities. A lot of these municipalities add a significant amount to the county tax base. I believe that I could reallocate resources, that I could work with the commissioners and work these municipalities to ensure they get the services that they’re entitled to.”

Is the sheriff’s office better than four years ago?

Griffin: “What we’ve seen in the sheriff’s office is a tremendous turnover rate. We’re looking at right now, a 50 percent turnover rate. There are tremendous officers that are still there. Henderson County lost a lot of talent and experience. Taxpayers invested tens of thousands in training. What should have been a county asset has been pushed aside.” School safety and animal control remain unresolved. “I can’t say it’s better off.”

McDonald: There has been turnover. “I’ve said this from day one. If you don’t have character and ethics to wear the badge honorably you’re not going to stay at our office. By the same token, we are recruiting some of the brightest people we’ve ever recruited. We’re attracting from other places.”

Griffin: “The mantra that I’ve heard is loyalty over skill set. The only loyalty I’m going to demand is going to be loyalty to you, the citizens of Henderson County that we serve. … We have lost over 100 personnel at the sheriff’s office. It takes $100,000 to $150,000 to replace that person. You’re looking at $10-15 million in what you the taxpayer has actually paid.”

McDonald: “No. 1, anyone who runs an office or organization has the right to expect that the the folks that work for them carry out their duty. I was hired by the citizens of Henderson County to do specific things, I promised them I would and I haven’t broken a promise yet. But when I find folks within my agency who can’t buy into that mission and who would be subversive and counterproductive I don’t care how much training they have I’ll pass and I’ll go get another one.” In turnover, “22 percent resigned for higher paying jobs, moving away, starting businesses or scheduled health issues, 25 percent retired; 33 percent retired or resigned in lieu of termination and of those 55 percent (were for) unbecoming conduct, ethics or policy violation, 17 percent work performance, 8 percent criminal acts and 17 percent subverted the sheriff’s missions and goals.”

How effective is the sheriff’s at working with the Latino community?

McDonald: “My commitment is to anybody who lives this county, whether they’re here on a visa or not, I don’t ask about that. My deputies don’t ask about that when we do our job. Our job is to provide safety and security.”

Griffin: The sheriff ought to be mindful of the economic contribution Latinos make. “There are actually industries here that would fold without these folks. We have to have a relationship. I would actually like to establish a liaison for the Latino community. We have to earn trust. … They can help us root out the bad actors in their community.”

What’s your position on body cameras?

McDonald: “When we start accepting things like this they take us down the slippery slope. Before we jump at something that looks good, we’ve got to think it through. Body cameras have caused officers to second guess or to hold back. Body cameras hold us to a level of visual acuity that a human being doesn’t have. A body camera can see many many times more clearly and more detail than the human eye can, particularly when a human being is under stress. The camera doesn’t have the information that the officer has. If the state were to mandate I would have to. If my deputies asked for it I would do that. If you carry yourself ethically and properly and you don’t generate a bunch of complaints that are verified and validated I trust you.”

Griffin: “Contrary to popular belief, we have suspects that are right. I have spoken to many officers whose agencies employ body cameras and the vast majority are pro-camera. We’ve already got cameras in the cars. Sometimes officers are at a disadvantage because the suspects are able to produce more visual evidence than the officer during an arrest. Almost every one of you out there carries a video camera with you. I know of one case right now where we’re going to use body-cam footage in a homicide trial. It is basically a fundamental piece of technology that need to employ here.”