A former Orange County Sheriff's Office investigator has his sights on replacing first-term Sheriff Charles Blackwood.
Tony White, 48, served 19 years with the Sheriff’s Office, including as an Orange High School resource officer, before retiring in 2016.
Blackwood, 57, is a 36-year Sheriff's Office veteran elected in 2014 to replace longtime Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass.
The candidates share many goals, including making deputies more visible in the community, combating opioid abuse, providing a jail that is safe for inmates and deputies, and providing well-being checks for local seniors.
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White says there could be a better focus on fiscal responsibility, training and diversity.
The sheriff serves a four-year term and is responsible for patrolling the county, responding to calls for service, investigating crimes, operating and maintaining the county jail, serving civil process papers, providing security in courthouses and courtrooms, running the county’s sex-offender registry program, hiring deputies and preparing budgets for consideration by the county commissioners.
Early voting for this year’s primary begins Thursday, April 19. The primary election is Tuesday, May 8. Only voters who are registered Democrat and unaffiliated can vote in the sheriff's primary — and the winner will not face any opposition in the November election — because there are no Republican candidates running.
Here's how the candidates responded to our questions:
Q. What are two challenges facing the Sheriff’s Office and/or community public safety? How would you address them?
Charles Blackwood: The opioid crisis is certainly on the list of challenges, and it affects our communities in many ways: increased property crime, negative economic impact and detrimental effect on families, just to name a few. Last year, we implemented the Coordinated Opioid Overdose Response Effort (COORE), creating a comprehensive approach to address the heroin epidemic and its collateral effects on our communities. In addition to all deputies carrying Naloxone, the [overdose] reversal drug, which has allowed our deputies to save lives, COORE established: creation of an inter-agency database of reported overdoses used to identify commonalities and patterns to assist in identifying traffickers and dealers; follow up with an abuser conducted by an EMS community medic to offer assistance in dealing with the addiction; a Sheriff's Amnesty Program that connects abusers with the Criminal Justice Resource Department to assist in them in accessing qualified long-term or short-term, in- or outpatient treatment.
Another challenge is that of public confidence in law enforcement in general. I am committed to providing diverse, well-trained law enforcement professionals able to respond without bias to county residents’ needs. To support this commitment, I advance the following:
▪ In-car camera and soon-to-be implemented body-worn camera recordings subject to increased mandatory review by high-level staff/supervisors to ensure fair, impartial treatment of all community members.
▪ Expanded participation in Racial Equity Institute (REI) programs designed to assist attendees to proactively understand and address racism. The majority of the Command Staff has attended REI. First-line supervisors participate next, followed by rank-and-file officers.
You cannot build trust in the midst of crisis; you must have already been there and garnered that trust. To that end, we continue to seize every opportunity to build relations with the communities we serve.
Tony White: One major challenge facing the Sheriff's Office is the turnover rate. Several deputies have left the Orange County Sheriff's Office to seek employment with other surrounding agencies. Two officers most recently left because they didn't feel that they were treated fairly. They felt like they were overlooked. They were told that [a certain situation] was going to happen, and it didn't. ... They were overlooked in promotions by giving them to people who were less deserving.
This is a issue that need to be corrected. Not only is it dangerous for the deputies working understaffed, [but] we fail to provide the manpower to protect and serve the citizens and visitors of Orange County.
I would build a trusting relationship with all employees to provide equal and fair treatment throughout the Sheriff's Office. Lastly, I would decrease the overindulgent spending of county taxpayers' money. For instance, Blackwood purchased two Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and they're not even getting used. I was told that the motorcycles were going to be for parades, funeral escorts and maybe when Chapel Hill or somebody is doing parades or a 5K run. I went around to the local funeral services and asked have they received a motorcycle escort from the Sheriff's Office. The ones I talked to said they didn't even know we had motorcycles.
I don't have a problem with replacing cars that need to be replaced. But why did they buy V8 Chargers when they could have purchased a V6 Charger that's $6,000 cheaper? I think he could have saved money. ... I have a big issue with him changing out the guns. There was no need for that. 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.
(NOTE: The Orange County Sheriff's Office has 145 full-time, two part-time and 29 temporary positions, executive assistant Tracy Smith said. Law enforcement officers fill 92 full-time and 24 part-time jobs (all retired deputies serving in the schools, courts and community); there are two vacancies. Another 60 employees are detention-certified officers, facilities maintenance, jail cooks, and legal, programs and administrative staff. Four jobs are vacant, Smith said, noting two more law enforcement positions recently were approved. "Most of us retire from here," Smith said, when asked about job turnover. "That's not really a big thing here.")
Q. How would you respond if you’re asked to enforce federal immigration law, including through the 287(g) and Secure Communities programs?
Blackwood: Enforcement of federal laws should be accomplished by federal actors and not by local law enforcement. I am committed to being responsive to the needs of all members of our community regardless of a person’s immigration status. We have worked diligently to improve and strengthen our relationship with immigrant communities in the county in a variety of ways, including our participation in the Faith ID initiative, partnership with El Centro Hispano, and successful recruiting and retention of bilingual and bicultural staff and officers. Last year, five officers traveled to attend a cultural immersion program to learn about daily life and law enforcement practices in Mexico.
White: I would not support nor participate with [the 287(g) or Secure Communities programs]. The program, in general, has proven costly, which one of my goals is to spend taxpayers' money wisely. I would like to build a trust relationship with all citizens of Orange County regardless of your race. Every citizen of Orange County shall be provided equal and fair treatment. The program has proven to deport immigrants with minor or no convictions. I feel this program does not prove to be effective.
Q. Where do you think the Sheriff’s Office should focus its training efforts?
Blackwood: Training must keep up with our ever-changing times, as well as the needs of the communities we serve. Building on a foundation of trust, the ethical treatment of all, and great customer service will enable us better serve the public. Dealing with social media, both inside and outside of the agency, is another area of concern. For this, we are working with staff at the UNC School of Government. We must continue to offer the most up-to-date training for our staff in order to have positive outcomes.
White: Focus training toward building safe schools. Do more active-shooter training at schools, churches. If you don't have a plan for active-shooter [incidents] at local sporting events, establish a plan. Provide training on how not to stereotype/profile people.
A candidates forum will begin at 3 p.m. Tuesday, April 17, in the Assembly Hall of Carol Woods Retirement Community, 750 Weaver Dairy Road in Chapel Hill. The forum will include candidates for sheriff, clerk of court and Orange County commissioner.
Another forum for the Orange County Sheriff's race will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 17, at the Schley Grange Hall, 3416 Schley Road, north of Hillsborough.