The next Chatham County sheriff will be a Democrat. No Republicans filed for the position, leaving present Sheriff Mike Roberson facing a challenge from Pittsboro Police Chief Percy Crutchfield in the May 8 Democratic primary.
The winner of the primary will be unopposed in November.
In a twist, both men are running their first political campaigns.
Roberson, who was appointed in 2016 when former Sheriff Richard Webster retired, is seeking election for the first time. He had been the chief deputy. Crutchfield, who has been town's police chief for the last four years, also is an election rookie.
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Both have extensive law-enforcement careers.
Roberson has worked in the Sheriff's Office since 2002 after starting his career in 1990 at the Chapel Hill Police Department, where he worked for 12 years.
Crutchfield has more than 29 years of law enforcement experience, including the last four as police chief. He also served as a Chatham County deputy earlier.
The budget for the Sheriff's Office is $13.3 million. There are 145 people who work in the Sheriff's Office.
The other primary races on the Chatham County ballot also are for Democrats. The Clerk of Superior Court race is between Dana M. Hackney of Siler City and Claire Parker Wilson of Pittsboro. The U.S. House District 6 competition has Ryan Watts of Burlington facing Gerald Wong of Greensboro, and the winner taking on Rep. Mark Walker in November.
Here are the answers to a pair of questions posed to both sheriff candidates:
What is the biggest challenge you see affecting Chatham County in the coming years and how will the Sheriff's Office address it?
Roberson: The big thing that is going to affect us in the future is growth. The tax base is generally a year and a half behind the needs. The steeper the growth is, the more resources behind we are. Not just the Sheriff's Office, but the schools are the same way. And from a law enforcement point of view, it's opioids. There are more people dying from overdoses than being killed in car wrecks, and that's nationwide. And so we've taken a proactive stance, and we want to get ahead of that and not just through enforcement. We're working with the health department to look at prevention, education, intervention and treatment. You can't arrest your way out of it, and you can't treat your way out of it. We've got to get ahead of it and slow it down before it does become a problem here.
Crutchfield: Of course, one of the biggest challenges is going to be the growth coming to Chatham County. We have the largest development that has ever been planned coming to the area. Fortunately being Pittsboro's police chief, I've been able to be involved in some of the meeting and planning, and I've been able to research some of the impact it will have on the local government level. It's throughout the county, too, with the megasites we've got coming. We've got to continue to prepare and plan so we can continue the level of service we have. My goal is to improve the level of service we have for every citizen and in every corner of the county, be that patrol function, the investigative service, service of process and the security of our schools and courts."
How does your office interact with and what is your policy regarding detainers from federal immigration authorities?
Roberson: Our position on immigration is that if they ask for our assistance on someone who is being looked at for murder or big drug cases or sex with children, we're for helping them. But I don't have the manpower to deputize my people to be federal agents. We want to have a relationship with ICE so we know when they're here. But I also want the community to know I want a relationship with everybody. If people dial 911, they don't need to be fearful of the sheriff showing up to take care of their immediate problem. We've worked hard to create a Hispanic outreach program with our Spanish-speaking officers to get us involved in their culture. Recently, we stopped honoring the 48-hour detainers. The reason is that state law only allows us to hold someone if a judicial official has signed an order. Whether a person is here legally or illegally, they do have constitutional rights. We do notify immigration if we're holding someone on a charge. The difference is that the 48 hours would hold them after we can release them. When they make bail we let [immigration authorities] know they're gone. We're not going to hold them past what we can legally hold them on a state charge.
Crutchfield: We've never in my career gone out and sought people who were undocumented or illegal aliens. That's just something local law enforcement doesn't do. Some people will go 'Are you sure about that?' and it's like if somebody calls us up and says somebody is cheating on their taxes. The federal government has specialized investigators to investigate those types of complaints and it comes under their authority. I am not a proponent of hunting down or looking for undocumented aliens. If there is a lawful warrant, we obviously have a responsibility to serve lawful warrants from any jurisdiction that asks for anybody to be detained or held, be that an armed robber from New York state or on a federal warrant for a federal violation.