Elections can stir up controversy, but this year's Orange County sheriff's race has featured claims of wasteful spending, coerced campaign support, stolen signs and marital infidelity.
Sheriff Charles Blackwood and his challenger, former investigator Tony White, were asked at an April 17 forum how important it is to be faithful to a spouse.
"I love my wife with all my heart," Blackwood said at the forum. "I have a lot of really close friends, and I love my close friends, too — a lot of whom are in this room tonight. It's not hard at all to be faithful to the person who's lived beside me for 30 years now."
White, too, expressed his love for his wife of 32 years.
"If I wasn't faithful, she wouldn't be sitting there looking as pretty as she does," he said.
Another forum question that hinted at allegations of illegal behavior involving deputies drew a quick denial from Blackwood. He and Chief Deputy Jamison Sykes separately addressed two recent allegations, one involving a jail nurse who had an "inappropriate relationship" with a detainee in 2014.
The nurse, who worked for medical contractor Southern Health Partners, was investigated shortly after Blackwood took office, Sykes said. Investigator Randy Hawkins did not find a sexual relationship and recommended not charging the nurse, who was fired, Sykes said.
The other allegation involved Sykes himself, who was accused this month of removing White’s campaign sign from a resident's yard. The witness who called 911 didn't name Sykes directly, Blackwood said, but said she followed the black Ford pickup involved in the incident to Sykes Drive and watched it head down the dead-end road.
Sykes was put on administrative leave while Investigator Tim Horne, who consulted with an N.C. Bureau of Investigation official, looked into the claim. Attempts to get a written statement from the witness failed and the claim was unsubstantiated, Blackwood said.
"I never, ever, ever, ever, ever thought, believed or even fathomed that Jamie had anything to do with this sign getting gone," Blackwood said. "But I also knew that if I didn't take this action, it would come back to bite me in the butt that I had protected him and not done a thorough investigation to make certain that he had nothing to do with it."
Blackwood, 57, is a 36-year Sheriff's Office veteran elected in 2014 to replace retiring Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass.
White, 48, served 19 years with the Sheriff’s Office, including as a school resource officer, before retiring in 2016.
While Pendergrass backed Blackwood in 2014, he’s supporting White this time. He doesn't have a problem with how Blackwood runs the department, Pendergrass said, but he is concerned as a taxpayer about the money that's being spent.
"In 2014, I felt like Charles was going to keep the budget running pretty smooth, and since 2014, he has spent money that I didn't feel like ... the taxpayers should be covering," Pendergrass said. "Tony came to me. He told me that he would work within the guidelines of what the county commissioners wanted him to."
White has not alleged any improper behavior, but he has questioned Blackwood's spending on new patrol cars, uniforms and weapons.
The taxpayer-funded portion of the department's annual budget has grown by about $1 million since June 2015 to $10.9 million this year, nearly all for personnel costs. An additional $2.7 million in revenues from federal inmate fees, inmate canteen spending, grants and other non-taxpayer sources pays the department's operational costs.
Deputy County Manager Travis Myren said the sheriff’s office has reimbursed money to the county budget every year since 2012; Blackwood returned $461,811 last year, down from a high of $1 million in Pendergrass's last year.
“There’s fact, and there’s perception,” Blackwood said. “Perception is that I’ve gone crazy, and I’m buying tons of stuff. Reality is we’ve got one of the best-managed budgets in the county, if not the state.”
Credits and debits
Since 2015, Blackwood has spent just over $289,000 on new uniforms, bulletproof vests, holsters, hats and other equipment, county records show. The department also bought 155 new 40-caliber Glock handguns for $64,610, replacing its 45-caliber Sig Sauers.
The department paid for the new Glocks in part by trading in 127 Sig Sauers for a $43,180 credit, Craig’s Firearm Supply invoices show. Money budgeted for uniforms, training and equipment covered the remaining $21,430, county records show.
Lawmen’s supply invoices also show the department was credited for $56,242 worth of ammunition and equipment that Blackwood said was found stored in the jail. That paid for 40-caliber ammunition and nearly half the $88,722 cost for new vests, invoices show.
This year, inmate canteen sales helped fund a $17,239 purchase that outfitted 40 detention officers with protective vests, and the county commissioners could spend $300,000 next year to buy body-worn cameras.
White thinks the department could have saved more by keeping the older firearms.
"We had them five or six years, but we had certified men that could repair those guns, we had parts at the Sheriff's Office we could repair those guns with," he said, "but switching to a lower-grade gun, I have a problem with."
There is no standard for when departments should upgrade their weapons, said Eddie Caldwell, with the N.C. Sheriff’s Association. Glock Inc. estimates its weapons are used by at least 65 percent of U.S. law enforcement agencies.
Sheriff’s Office Lead Investigator Tim Horne, who also is an armorer, said he supported the upgrade. The Glock made a big difference in deputies' accuracy at the firing range, because of its even trigger pull, he said. They also have fewer parts than Sig Sauers, making them easier to repair, and perform better in situations involving dirt and moisture, he noted.
The new uniforms also are saving money, Sykes said. The cost was about the same as the older, tan uniforms, but those were special ordered in bulk, leaving them with a lot of leftovers, he said. The storage room now is an office for eight drug investigators, he said.
Fleet of cars
But the department's biggest purchase since 2015 was $1.4 million for 55 new vehicles, including Dodge Chargers, sport utility vehicles and two motorcycles.
The older Ford Crown Victorias had high mileage, were in disrepair and were on the county asset management department's replacement list, Blackwood said. The Chargers are more fuel efficient, more rugged, and have a better trade-in value, he added.
“We don’t buy the vehicles, (fleet management buys) the vehicles, so that was their plan to replace the vehicles over a period of time,” Blackwood said. “We highlighted which vehicles were the most dangerous to be on the road. They went first.”
Each Hemi V-8 Dodge Charger, purchased through the N.C. Sheriff's Association, cost about $26,000, plus the cost of adding graphics, wireless communications, radar units and other tools. The SUVs, which Blackwood said are a basic model, cost just over $30,000.
The county manager and commissioners approved all of the purchases, including one motorcycle that was funded partially with drug forfeiture money. The county sold 25 surplus Sheriff’s Office cars for $51,185.87, Myren said.
'Buy what you need'
White said he doesn’t have a problem with buying new cars, but advocated for the less-expensive, less-powerful V-6 Charger. He also questioned the motorcycles, which only one deputy appears to be using, and not for funeral escorts, he said.
“My theory is buy what you need, not what you want," White said. "The Orange County Sheriff’s Office, when Blackwood took office, it was in need. Sheriff Pendergrass was conservative, but we had what we needed to complete the Orange County Sheriff’s Office."
The motorcycles have been used for 17 special escorts and parades and 10 funerals, Blackwood said. In the future, they will help with speed and traffic control, start conversations with the public, and manage large events, he said.
The motorcycle unit also secured support from the Governor’s Highway Safety Program, he said, which helped the department get a drunk-driving simulator for high school students and money for a third motorcycle to offer rider-safety classes, he said.
Three deputies are assigned to the motorcycle unit, he noted, but injuries kept one out of work for a few months and another was sick. Both have since left for the Mebane Police Department, he said, but three more deputies are being trained to replace them.
Two deputies also are being trained to use a $30,000 drone purchased in March with drug forfeiture money and get the required Federal Aviation Administration license, Blackwood said. It will help with search and rescue, crowd management, crime scenes, and more, he said.
White agreed a drone can be useful but wondered why other local agencies weren't asked to share the cost.
White and others, in a separate allegation, also criticized Blackwood's focus on social media instead of deputy morale. Two deputies left the department after being passed over for promotions they felt they had earned; others didn’t feel they were treated fairly, said White, who has campaigned on bringing greater diversity to the department.
The department is roughly 78 percent male and 74 percent white, according to county records. Another 16 percent of the employees are black, 9 percent are Hispanic and just over 1 percent are Asian.
Blackwood's employees have started attending Racial Equity Institute training, and greater diversity continues to be a goal, he said. While he's familiar with the deputies who left, he cannot comment on personnel issues, Blackwood said, noting that turnover is low.
“We’ve had people leave us for other trades, we’ve had people leave us to go to other agencies. I don’t pine over that a whole lot,” he said. “If they’re in Mebane, that just extends our boundaries. If they’re in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, that extends our boundaries. We’ve got a level of trust with everyone who works with us and with the agencies that surround us.”
The sheriff earns $118,618 a year and oversees 92 full-time deputies and 53 full-time employees, including detention center deputies and cooks, and maintenance, legal, programs and office staff. Two part-time and five temporary staff also work in the jail and administration.
Executive assistant Tracy Smith said five positions have been added since 2015; two more were approved this month. There are six vacancies, including two deputies.
"Most of us retire from here," Smith said, although some come back. Twenty-four retired deputies still work in temporary positions in the schools, courts and the community, she said.
White said his campaign started with a group of deputies who asked him run last summer. Some who still work at the Sheriff’s Office can’t support his campaign publicly for fear they could lose their jobs, he said.
He declined to name them, but said their co-workers had approached them about supporting Blackwood with a sign or donation.
“They were not threatened, but they felt threatened, because they felt like if they didn’t give money, there would be repercussions, and if they did give money, they didn’t want people to think they were supporting him when they were writing their name on the endorsement list,” White said.
Maj. David Caldwell, who ran against Blackwood in 2014, was among several deputies who said they had not heard of anyone being urged to support the sheriff. Blackwood declined his offer of a donation to help pay his filing fee earlier this year, Caldwell said.
Blackwood also defended the use of social media as an important communication and crime-fighting tool. Having investigators who proactively chase leads, combined with public tips and improvements at the State Crime Lab, is making a difference, he said.
The Sheriff’s Office cleared 71 percent of the crimes reported last year, Horne said, above the 40 percent to 50 percent rate that most departments, including Orange County in prior years, typically report.
There were 869 cases in 2017 — 277 more than in 2016 largely because of more fraud, Horne said. They cleared 617 cases last year and closed another 18 percent for a lack of evidence or other reasons. That left 95 cases still open in January – on par with previous years.
The Sheriff’s Office is in the best shape of his 28-year career, Horne said.
“I’ve been around here long enough to have gone through some darker times, with less equipment, a lot less training and morale was really low,” he said.