Drugs, school safety and funding priorities were some of the topics raised during Saturday’s political forum.
The four Republican challengers to Sheriff Jimmy Combs answered questions for about half an hour at the event held in the basketball gym of Temple Baptist Church on Rockford Street.
Two of the candidates (Steve Hiatt and Jamie Goad) have years of experience working in the sheriff’s office. Another, Vann Tate, has years of experience both in the Mount Airy Police Department and the Highway Patrol. The outside candidate, Ervin Odum, is a contractor who has run his own business for years, but has no law enforcement training.
• The first question asked concerned some issues facing the sheriff’s office such as unsolved crimes and drugs. After 23 years with a Democrat in the sheriff’s seat, how would the candidates address the issues?
Goad said that 23 years of a Democratic sheriff is long enough.
He would restructure the narcotics division and have three guys assigned full-time to go after drug houses and dealers. He also wants to see a drug court established where users come before a judge to hopefully get help and not just jail time.
Hiatt said he sees two specific areas to address with urgency: increasing the manpower in both the patrol force and narcotics division. The population keeps growing, but the patrol force has been the same for 20 years. The increase in call volume warrants an increase.
Hiatt added that he thinks there can be a way to restructure and reorganize the office so that more deputies can be added without additional taxpayer expense.
Odum said a sheriff needs to lock up drug dealers, not work with them. The drug addicts should be put to work. Give them an option of prison or work rehabilitation, he said, and he doesn’t care where they work. Garnish some of their paycheck to help pay for the program.
One of the reasons that crimes go unsolved is because the detectives are overwhelmed with different cases, said Tate. Officers will go out and work their cases, then come back and turn over the evidence and paperwork to the detectives.
There is some dead weight at the top of the department, he said, and restructuring the office would free up detectives, Tate said. That is one of the four points his strategic plan.
• With mass shootings garnering much attention across the country, many people are blaming guns and gun owners. How will the sheriff protect the people while also protecting gun rights?
Tate said he is a strong advocate of the 2nd Amendment. People should have a right to protect their home and property. He said he has never known a gun to shoot someone — it could sit on a shelf for 30 years and never hurt anyone. He said would have no problem, however, with stricter background checks before purchases.
Goad said he, too, is a strong advocate of the right to bear arms. “Taking our guns away would be a crucial mistake for this country,” he said. The criminals are going to get guns no matter what.
For better security for children, Goad said he is in favor of school resource officers at elementary schools. He wants more training in rapid deployment so deputies better know how to effectively deal with situations that arise.
“Any emergency at a school concerns us all,” said Hiatt. He said he would work to ensure schools have the best surveillance cameras and equipment to alert staff to threats. He would encourage patrol deputies to stop in at schools and interact with staff.
As for guns in general, Hiatt said he fully supports the 2nd Amendment as well as people who petition for concealed-carry permits.
Odum said, “The worst fear in my life is losing a kid.” He said he would be in favor of coaches and teachers having concealed-carry permits. He supports better security of doors.
• As sheriff, how would one prioritize the department’s needs with a limited budget and manpower?
Odum said the county probably needs to hire a few more deputies. As he said earlier, if he were in charge the sheriff would get rid of criminals, not work with them.
Tate said he would look at the demographics of the county, see where the high crime is and assign a deputy to an area — not just pass through, but stay a whole shift unless he or she is running a call or going back to the office.
No sheriff can stop crime by himself, Tate added, so he needs to work with the community. It’s not going to happen in one day.
Goad said he heard commissioner candidate Mark Marion say earlier that day that there were 28 deputies on patrol, but he wasn’t sure if that number was right. In 1995 when he was hired to the department, he was the fifth person hired to one of four shifts. And it stayed that way for the two decades he was employed there.
Surry County has 542 square miles and more than 70,000 people, Goad said. The sheriff can’t cover all of that with five people per shift. He said he would search out grants and other financial help to increase the workforce.
“The need for expansion has become obvious,” said Hiatt. It would aid in response time and develop better relationships with the public they serve. In restructuring the office, there could be some places where jobs could be combined and free up money for patrolmen.
• As sheriff, if you were given an order from the state or federal level that you considered unconstitutional, would you enforce it?
Hiatt said he would be obligated to enforce any law or directive to the sheriff.
“I take an oath for the people of the county,” said Odum. If he considered the mandate unconstitutional, “I wouldn’t enforce it.”
The sheriff takes an oath to uphold the rights of his people, said Tate. If there is no probable cause or the order is unconstitutional, then the sheriff has to protects his people and their rights.
Goad said he spent almost 21 years with the sheriff’s office. Sometimes an officer has to carry out the law even if he doesn’t personally agree with it. When you are sworn to uphold the hold, you do what you must. If you don’t want to follow the law, it is time to lay down the badge and go home.
• Considering the Me Too movement, there has been widespread prevalence of sexual assault reported across the country, especially in the workplace. How would you investigate if it were reported on your staff.
If an employee is sexually harassing coworkers or if a married person is openly engaging in sex with other people, then that would be a firing offense, said Tate. A deputy is supposed to look out for the people. A person only has one chance to build personal integrity and a good reputation; once that is gone, it can’t be restored. He added that he has 26 years of faithful marriage to his wife.
If sexual harassment is discovered, it will be dealt with through the chain of command, said Goad. They will be investigated, and if it is true, they will be reprimanded or terminated, whichever is called for.
The sheriff’s office should have its own internal affairs investigate any allegations of wrongdoing, not just harassment, said Hiatt. There will be a fair investigation. If it is someone with high rank, he would check with the SBI about having an outside investigation to ensure fairness.
Odum said he holds women in high regard and wouldn’t allow any such activity in his office. He said he might not have any law enforcement background himself, but the two women he would call upon to help him run the office have 41 years of experience, so no misconduct would be allowed.
• Closing Statements
Tate said he is the only Eagle Scout running for office. He worked for the Mount Airy Police Department and has retired from the N.C. Highway Patrol. Twice during his career he was subject to routine polygraph questioning and says he would require that of any new hire in his department.
This county has some great men and women working at the sheriff’s office, said Hiatt. His desire is to make it stronger and better. He will make necessary changes to strengthen the patrol and narcotics divisions. He will need devoted and highly motivated deputies and will seek them out. He said he genuinely cares for people and has a clear vision for the office.
Hiatt mentioned he has 34 years of experience as a deputy; 28 working full-time, retiring as a lieutenant, and the past six years part-time.
Odum said he has owned a construction company since 1974 and would run the sheriff’s office like a business. He would reinvigorate the Community Watch program. He said he would be willing to get out and do the footwork as the sheriff’s work can’t be done sitting in an office.
Goad said he, like Hiatt, met a lot of good people at the sheriff’s office in his nearly 21 years there, folks with integrity and honesty, but it is time for a Republican sheriff again. The office needs fresh ideas and changes and not a politician.
Goad said there have been a lot of questions about why he left the sheriff’s office. “When you step on your boss’s toes, then you are the one who gets blackballed.”
The primary is May 8 with the winner moving on to challenge Sheriff Jimmy Combs in the November election.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692.