A lawsuit waged by Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran against the county was shot down in court this week.

Cochran accused commissioners of cutting his pay in 2006 as a form of partisan retribution. State statute protects sheriffs from politically motivated pay cuts, making it illegal for county commissioners to reduce the sheriff’s compensation or allowances following the outcome of an election.

In this case, Cochran argued the all-Democratic board of commissioners retaliated against him after he narrowly beat out a long-time Democratic sheriff.

However, Cochran’s civil suit was thrown out by Judge Allan Thornburg this week following a hearing on Jan. 24. Cochran’s attorney David Sawyer said they plan to appeal the decision to the N.C. Court of Appeals.

The judge did not stipulate why he was dismissing the case, so it’s unclear which of the many defenses put forward by the county was the winning one.

One interesting argument in the case centered around whether county commissioners indeed reduced Cochran’s compensation as he claimed. While it seems like a clear-cut matter — either they cut his pay or they didn’t — it gets a little complicated.

Following an election upset by Cochran in 2006, commissioners put an end to a long-standing slush fund enjoyed by prior sheriffs. Prior sheriffs were paid a flat rate to feed jail inmates and could keep the surplus to use as they pleased, whether it was pocketing the difference or using it to subsidize operations around their office.

When making his case that the lost meal money equated to lost pay, Cochran needed to prove that previous sheriffs made a profit on the meal deal and by how much.

“The problem is we don’t know what that number is,” said Mark Melrose of Melrose, Seago and Lay, who represented the county in the suit.

Melrose said any dollar amount would be “highly speculative.”

The county never made prior sheriffs document what they were actually spending on inmates’ food, but instead dolled out a lump sum with no questions asked.

The lack of records means Cochran could not conclusively show how much previous sheriffs made on the meal deal, and thus how much he supposedly lost when it was taken away.

The previous sheriff got $10 per inmate per day. Sawyer said Cochran has complete records of his cost to feed inmates, so while the surplus made by past sheriffs remains a mystery, it would be easy to calculate what Cochran was due if the old formula was still in effect.

The state statute not only bars commissioners from cutting the sheriff’s pay, but also for reducing his “allowances.” Cochran and the county sparred over whether the inmate meal fund qualified as an “allowance.”

“His contention was that it was an allowance. Our argument was that it was a reimbursement for expenditures,” said Melrose.

Rather than paying out a lump sum, the county now reimburses the sheriff for actual food costs at the jail — but it still counts as a reimbursement, not an allowance, Melrose said.

In a dual claim, Cochran sued the county for breach of contract.  

“Cochran argued there was an implied contract based on the county’s dealing with prior sheriffs, but you can’t piggy back on top of that,” Melrose said.

The county commissioners never “implied” they would continue funding inmate meals the same way they had with prior sheriffs. In fact, government entities legally can’t make verbal promises to do business with someone, Melrose said, but must do business in the open through written public contracts.

The county argued that it had sovereign immunity in this case, meaning it could not be sued for such things. Sawyer said granting the county sovereign immunity in this case renders the state statute moot.

“If soveriegn immunity applies here, it is questionable whether there is any mechanism to enforce that statute,” Sawyer said. “We feel it is an important issue for the Court of Appeals to look at.”

But the county did not hang its hat on that defense alone, and it is ultimately not known whether it was the deciding factor for the judge.

“In order to defend the county, we had to recreate all the events of the food being supplied to the inmates for a long time to see what was the practice, what was paid, how was it paid, was there a profit. It was very fact intensive,” Melrose said.

Mike McConnell, an attorney with the same firm as Melrose, was the primary lawyer for Swain County in the case.

 

Lowest sheriff salary

Auditors had repeatedly warned the county the meal deal wasn’t exactly kosher and should be ended, but it wasn’t until Cochran came into office that commissioners heeded the advice. The county claimed it was simply time to embrace a new, better way of doing business.

At the time, Cochran asked commissioners for a salary increase if they were going to cut out the meal deal.

When Cochran filed the suit he was one of the lowest paid sheriffs in the state with a salary of just $38,000. He’s gotten incremental raises from commissioners since then, bringing his salary to $47,000, but he is still one of the lowest — if not the lowest — paid sheriffs in the state. His salary is the lowest according to a list of sheriff salaries put out by the UNC School of Government, but it shows no data for a few counties. Only two other counties showed sheriff salaries of less than $50,000.

In the end, the county may have been better off giving Cochran more of a raise to offset the loss of the meal deal rather than paying the costs of the lawsuit. County Manager Kevin King said he did not know how much the county had spent in legal costs defending the suit so far.

“To be honest I have not received any bills yet,” said King.

However, Melrose said the county has been billed regularly for work in the suit since 2008.

“There has been a good bit of billing,” Melrose said. “There have been three or four depositions and court hearings and time spent preparing the case. The legal arguments took a lot of time and research.”

King did not return subsequent messages and emails again requesting the cost of the lawsuit to the county. The county hopes to be reimbursed for court costs, but those amount to less than $1,000, a small sum compared to the legal fees for the attorneys.

“The sheriff is willing to talk with the county at any time and would like to resolve this in amicable but if not the appeal is the only other route that we have,” Sawyer said.

When asked whether the county was pleased the suit was dismissed, King directed questions about the lawsuit to county commissioners. Commissioner Chairman Phil Carson did not return a message.

In Swain County, incumbent Republican Sheriff Curtis Cochran successfully fended off challenger John Ensley.

Cochran has faced several controversies in the preceding four-year term, his first in law enforcement. He has weathered well-publicized rows with county commissioners, including a discrimination lawsuit against them and disagreements about deputy pay, overtime and other budgetary woes. The department under Cochran has also seen the escape of an accused murderer from its new, still half-empty jail — aided by a detention officer — and the misuse of official credit cards by yet another detention officer.

Democrat Ensley, a local businessman with only a tad more law enforcement experience than Cochran, felled other primary contenders with ease but eeked out little more than a third of the final vote tally. Throughout his campaign, he promised to use his prowess as a salesman to entice federal, state and other local prisoners to fill the costly jail, a feat Cochran has, as yet, failed to perform.

Cochran won all five of the county’s precincts, taking more than 60 percent of the vote in four districts and leading one of those by 71 percent. He will now enter another four-year term, where he will be working with the recently-elected, all-Democrat county commission.

 

Swain County Sheriff

Curtis Cochran (R)    2,857

John Ensley (D)    1,706

Haywood County’s Bobby Suttles won his first election for the sheriff’s seat he has held since 2008, beating Republican challenger Bill Wilke by only 7 percent.

Suttles won 20 of the 29 precincts, with Wilke taking most of the county’s southern districts.

Both contenders brought a plethora of law enforcement experience to the race – Wilke touting his 14-year career and current position as night sergeant with the Asheville Police Department and Suttles’ resume listing 35 years of representing the law, including 15 with the sheriff’s department.

After the mid-term resignation of former sheriff Tom Alexander in 2008, Suttles was tapped by the Democratic Party to move into the sheriff’s role from the chief deputy position, which he’d held since 2003.

He ran on a platform of “continued progress,” promising technology upgrades and increased drug enforcement and selling his ability to effectively maintain the department’s budget.

Wilke, an Army reservist who just completed a tour in Iraq, also pledged his support for drug enforcement and better technology, and also vowed to take a $10,000 per-year personal pay cut. He also advocated for better reporting and accountability within the department.

 

Haywood County Sheriff

Bobby Suttles (D)    10,612

William (Bill) Wilke (R)    9,332

Macon County Sheriff Robert “Robby” Holland, a Republican, has won another term in office — his third — by beating back challenger George Lynch, a Democrat.

Holland and Lynch ran relatively mud-free campaigns that focused on their respective strengths as veteran law enforcement officers. Holland, 43, worked his way up the ladder at the sheriff’s department. He started in 1991 as a part-time detention officer, serving under another popular, seemingly unbeatable Republican sheriff, Homer Holbrooks.

Holland won Macon County with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Lynch, 62, is no stranger to Macon County voters, and represented a serious, if unsuccessful, challenger for Holland. Lynch had 14 years of experience as a law enforcement officer for the U.S. Forest Service.

Holland, during his campaign, emphasized the multiple programs he’s instituted to combat the use of illegal drugs, and the crimes associated with their use. Holland also has placed a strong emphasis on involving the community in law enforcement efforts.

 

Macon County Sheriff

Robert (Robby) Holland (R)    7,802

George Lynch (D)    5,162

Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe won his third term in office Tuesday, easily beating back a challenge from political newcomer Mary Rock.

Ashe, 51, a Democrat, has been in law enforcement for 29 years. He started in 1981 as a dispatcher and jailer for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, working his way up to the top post. Ashe made stops along the way as a detective and as chief deputy.

Ashe has initiated a slew of anti-illegal drug programs in Jackson County, an inmate-work program and more, which — in addition to his years of experience — he emphasized strongly and repeatedly during his campaign.

Earlier headline-generating news that Ashe used state and federal money from narcotics seizures to operate an informal fund for youth sports apparently didn’t deter voters.

Rock, a registered Democrat, ran as an unaffiliated candidate. She hoped by doing so — by avoiding being beaten by Ashe in the May primaries — she’d give voters more time to get to know her before the midterm election and increase her odds of winning.

Rock, a professional bail bondswoman, is a U.S. Army veteran who served in the military police for two years, and spent an additional five years in the reserve.

 

Jackson County Sheriff
Jimmy Ashe (D)    6,672
Mary Rock (U)    3,760

Is Mary Rock paranoid, trying to garner a sympathy vote? Or is her opponent for sheriff, incumbent Jimmy Ashe, really targeting her by destroying campaign signs?

Over the past week or so, three signs — the large ones, which cost about $100 each — encouraging voters to cast their support for Rock have been defaced or cut up. One near Cullowhee Valley School, where early voting is taking place, has been hit twice. This last time nothing was left, she said, but the backboard.

(Rock called The Smoky Mountain News on Monday to complain after being requested to let this newspaper know if something additional happened. This after two signs were ruined at an earlier date).

Rock said she might simply take a spray paint can and scrawl the words, “Vote for Mary Rock” on the backboard. That, she said, would be difficult to destroy. It certainly would be cheaper. And, something that easily could be done before the November election. You wouldn’t believe how much time it takes, she said, to get those campaign signs back after you order them.

Ashe did not return a call by press time Tuesday requesting comment.

Rock, 43, is a professional bail bondswoman making an initial bid for public office. She wants to become the first female sheriff in Jackson County. Doing so won’t be an easy task — Ashe is a two-term incumbent and Democrat in a Democrat-heavy county. Rock is running unaffiliated with any political party. But really, she is a Democrat, too, and is registered with the board of elections as such. Rock picked this route to give voters more time to get to know her, because she figured she’d get knocked out of the race in the May primaries if she ran as a Democrat.

Rock said she believes Ashe, his supporters, or both are trying to get her to “have to deal” with the sheriff’s department. The proper route for Rock would be to file complaints at the sheriff’s department, which she said would simply set the stage for further discomfort or even harassment.

“I can see why no one runs for public office,” Rock said of her experience.

Mary Rock wants to become the first female sheriff in Jackson County, but gaining that title against two-term incumbent and Democrat Jimmy Ashe won’t be easy.

Part of Rock’s tactic is that she is running unaffiliated rather than under the banner of a political party. She is a registered Democrat, however.

“I did not feel that I would have as much time for folks to get to know me if I ran as a Democrat,” Rock, 43, said of the difficulty she would have had winning the primary against Ashe back in May. “But the biggest reason is that I’m not seeking the job to be either a Democrat or Republican — I want to serve all people.”

Rock, a U.S. Army veteran, served in the military police for two years, and spent an additional five years in the reserve. She then completed her basic law enforcement training at Southwestern Community College. Afterwards, she began a double major at Western Carolina University in social work and criminal justice. Rock works as a professional bail bondsman, a job she’s held for 12 years.

“I’m an officer of the courts,” Rock said. “I take people into custody.”

If elected, she said she’ll place more emphasis on manning the substations at the farthest ends of the county, arrest drug dealers, work closely with social workers who are investigating elder and child abuse, cooperate and work with other agencies, tackle property theft, and operate with “a moral compass.”

“I feel (Ashe) has abused his power,” Rock said, in reference to revelations that Ashe used state and federal money from narcotics seizures to operate an informal fund for youth sports.

Additionally, the sheriff used $20,000 from the fund to pay for a carpet in the sheriff’s office and $400 to list himself on a national “who’s who” list. Ashe also, while off duty, road a Harley Davidson motorcycle that had been seized from a drug dealer.

State authorities deemed the sheriff’s use of the money on sports was not illegal, but the lack of oversight violated a general statute. Jackson County in response changed how it administers the narcotics fund.

Ashe, 51, is unapologetic about steering money toward helping the young people of his county.

“That’s putting back what the drug dealers have taken away,” he said, adding that his tenure in office has been “above board and transparent.”

Ashe said his opponent is mudslinging. He pointed to his experience, and the work done against crime since he’s been sheriff, as being the real issues.

Ashe has been in law enforcement for 29 years. He started in 1981 as a dispatcher and jailer, working his way up to the top post. Stops along the way include work as a detective and as chief deputy.

“Law enforcement has been my life and career for more than half my life,” Ashe said. “I think it was my destiny to be where I am — serving the public.”

In response to Rock’s plan to man the substations, Ashe said he keeps deputies active on the roads in the farthest parts of the county. He said he doesn’t want them out-of-sight behind a desk.

Ashe also pointed to anti-drug programs he’s instituted, an inmate work program, and other initiatives as reasons he should be reelected sheriff.

Two veteran officers, Sheriff Robert Holland and George Lynch, are vying to fill Macon County’s top law-enforcement post.

The campaigns of both men have been remarkable. More for what isn’t happening rather than what has taken place. Both Holland, the incumbent, and Lynch, a former U.S. Forest Service law-enforcement officer, said they are intent on running clean, mudslinging-free campaigns.

And, to date, they have.

Holland, 43, a Republican, is in his second four-year term as sheriff. He joined the Macon County Sheriff’s Department in 1991. And made a steady climb to sheriff: animal-control officer, part-time detention officer, part-time deputy, fulltime deputy, investigator in the juvenile office, supervisor of that office, investigations unit.

Holland, not surprisingly, is running a campaign based on his experience.

“I’ve got eight years as sheriff,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of programs going that have been a success.”

Holland said since being elected sheriff, he has placed a major emphasis on combating illegal drugs and the crimes associated with them.

“I’ve really encouraged community involvement,” he said. “People in the community know their neighbor better than we do.”

The Democrat party’s candidate, Lynch, 62, like Holland, has emphasized his experience in law enforcement. He has a military background that includes one year as a military policeman for the National Guard. Fourteen years were spent as a federal officer for the Forest Service, where Lynch investigated, prepared and shepherded through trial more than 200 cases.

Lynch hinted at two areas where his administration would differ from Holland’s. One is more visible patrols in remote areas.

Lynch said he believes the primary duty of a patrol officer is the “protection of life and property,” not traffic control, though he would still want deputies to put the brakes on reckless drivers and drunken drivers.

“Officers need to be seen day and night from the city limits to the most remote areas of the county,” he said, “checking on the security of private property, businesses, churches, schools, homes, nonresidential houses and developments.”

Because of the geographic distance of Highlands and Nantahala from Franklin, Lynch said he wants fulltime deputies assigned to both communities.

He said he does not like “sensational drug busts” in which “buyers and dealers are allowed to continue to buy, sell and ruin lives until one can charge large numbers at once for publicity purposes.”

Lynch said he would strongly consider entering drug taskforce agreements with other agencies rather than use the go-it-alone approach “now in place.”

Voters will have a choice between a fresh or familiar face in this year’s Haywood County sheriff’s race.

Democratic incumbent Bobby Suttles has worked law enforcement in Haywood for 35 years, including 18 years at the Haywood County Sheriff’s office.

“I know the people over here. I know this office,” said Suttles.

Suttles is relying on that tenure as the foundation for his campaign. Suttles inherited the post of top lawman 18 months ago when former Sheriff Tom Alexander retired. Now Suttles must run for the seat.

His opponent Bill Wilke, a sergeant with the Asheville Police Department, said he would bring a modern approach to the table if elected.

“I think my perspective is broader,” Wilke said. “I think I have a more contemporary outlook on how those problems need to be addressed.”

Wilke wants to provide a long-term vision for the sheriff’s office that looks 10 or 15 years from now. He will focus on modern law enforcement programs and ideas that are already working in neighboring counties.

For example, Wilke is in favor of connecting criminals with community members, such as pastors.

“They need to be given a microphone,” Wilke said.

According to Wilke, moral voices could help curb crimes such as domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.

Wilke also wants to stress problem-oriented policing, which asks officers to take a long-term approach to problems rather than dashing onto a crime scene. A drug house could be thoroughly investigated to determine players before taking action, for example.

Suttles said he and his deputies already look before they leap.

“You’ve got to build your case,” Suttles said.

The sheriff’s office is already working hard to combat drugs, according to Suttles. In addition, Suttles deputized officers at the Waynesville Police Department, which has its own K-9 dog, to help battle drugs.

Suttles added that law-enforcement officers from Haywood’s municipal police departments also meet monthly to discuss problems and strategies.

 

Fighting for resources

Recently, Haywood commissioners expressed hesitation about accepting a $220,000 grant for equipment, vehicles and two officers who would focus on traffic enforcement. The county would have to pay an increasing portion of the two traffic officers’ salaries and take full responsibility for salaries by the fourth year.

“It’s hard to understand when they want to turn down grants,” said Suttles, who has often stressed the need for more officers and newer equipment at the sheriff’s office. “Sometimes, our hands are just tied here with the commissioners. They don’t have the money.”

Wilke said he would try to compromise with commissioners over budget items, but the sheriff’s office also should wisely allocate the resources it already has.

Wilke hopes to do an assessment of operations at the sheriff’s office to make sure resources are used efficiently.

But according to Suttles, the recession, not wasteful spending, is the problem.

“We’re not frivolously spending money, but you can only do so much,” Suttles said.

During his short term, Suttles has successfully pursued grants that have brought Tasers and mobile data terminals to the Haywood sheriff’s office. Video arraignments should be available by mid-October, cutting down on officer time spent shuttling criminals between jail and the courthouse.

Rather than focus on grants, however, Wilke said he would try to generate revenue from drug seizures. Law enforcement agencies can keep a portion of the money they seize from narcotics dealers.

“You hit the drug problem in this county, and you’re going to have a great effect on ancillary crimes,” Wilke said. “It’s a win-win all the way around. We’re just not doing it right.”

Wilke said the sheriff’s office could profit more from seizing drug dealers’ assets than going after grants. Moreover, there wouldn’t be any strings attached.

It’s nearing showtime for the most heated race in Swain County: the battle between Republican Sheriff Curtis Cochran and his challenger, Democrat John Ensley.

Controversial issues were neither few nor far between during Cochran’s first term as sheriff: a suspected murderer escaped from Swain County’s jail last year; a Swain detention officer purchased a big-screen TV using the county’s credit card; a newly built $10 million jail continues to sit half-empty; and Cochran went head to head with commissioners over deputy pay. Cochran even sued Swain’s Democratic commissioners for discriminating against him by essentially reducing his salary.

As a result, Cochran has been a polarizing figure in Swain politics. Bumper stickers saying “Elect anyone BUT Curtis Cochran” appeared as much as a year ago, but many Swain residents still stand by Cochran’s side. Cochran said the same scrutiny would hold true for anybody currently in office.

“You’re going to have a group of supporters. You’re going to have a group that wants you out,” said Cochran.

Cochran said if re-elected he will continue making progress at the sheriff’s office, including continuing a fight against drugs.

“I’m here for the people of Swain County,” Cochran said. “I don’t see myself on a pedestal and the people under me.”

 

Building rapport & budgets

In his campaign against Cochran, Ensley is emphasizing the importance of building good relationships.

Ensley says he will “rebuild” a rapport with county commissioners, with surrounding counties and Cherokee, with state and federal agencies, and with the community at large.

Despite the Cochran’s lawsuit against commissioners, Cochran said he and the county board have always had an open door policy and continue to have one now.

“I think that we work very well with the commissioners,” said Cochran. “The only big issue is with the budget and the lawsuit.”

Cochran would not comment on the lawsuit, adding that his focus is on carrying out his duties as sheriff, not the case filed against commissioners.  

As for the budget, Cochran had fought hard to keep overtime pay for his deputies, who sometimes work 18- to 20-hour days. “I’m a firm believer that if people work, they need to get paid,” Cochran said.

But the commissioners refused to grant overtime because of the recession and slashed his workforce by 22 percent with the 2009-10 budget.

“I’m not going to second-guess commissioners. I’m not going to say what they were thinking,” Cochran said. “That’s pretty well self-evident.”

Commissioners at the time said overtime was being abused as a recurring means of inflating deputies’ base salaries. Cochran said he will actively request more deputies and salary increases for his employees from the new county board if re-elected.

Ensley points to his business expertise, which he says would help him stretch every penny he gets from commissioners. Ensley plans to restructure the department and handle the budget “much better” than the way it has been handled in the past. Ensley would like to charge a fee to those who are convicted to fund a salary increase.

“Times are tough, and you have to make do with less,” Ensley said. “We’re going to get creative.”

Ensley said he has spoken with most of the current commissioners and those who are running for a spot on the county board.

“We are not going to have an issue,” Ensley said. “It’s a priority for me to have a good working relationship. There are ways [to find a] resolution without having a public fight.”

 

Experience or lack thereof

Experience has long been the centerpiece of the upcoming election. In May, eight Democrats packed the ballot for the chance to take on Cochran come fall. Ensley won by a comfortable margin.

Every challenger highlighted his law enforcement background, drawing a contrast with Cochran, who had no law enforcement training before going into office as sheriff.

Ensley said he is a certified law enforcement officer in North Carolina, has worked at the Swain County jail and a jail in Florida. He graduated as president of his basic law enforcement training class at Haywood Community College.

In addition to law-enforcement training completed after becoming sheriff, Cochran said unlike other candidates, only he can boast on-the-job experience.

“They talk about experience,” Cochran said. “I am the only candidate who has the experience of being sheriff of Swain County …I got four years at the helm. I know where the problems are.”

 

Filling up oversized jail

When Swain built an oversized jail several years ago — twice the size needed for its own prisoners — it was banking on filling it with prisoners from other counties and federal prisoners to subsidize the cost. But other counties had built their own jails and federal prisoners dried up, too. Cochran inherited the plight of the oversized jail when he took office.

Ensley characterizes the $10 million jail as an investment that needs to turn profitable. He plans to launch an all-out campaign to win over state and federal agencies, such as U.S. Marshals and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“I’m going to go out of my way to work with each one of these groups,” Ensley said. “I have salesmanship, and I think that’s part of what we need to do.”

Most of the prisoners housed in Swain County’s jail that come from outside the county hail from Cherokee. But the Eastern Band now plans to build its own jail — a final blow to Swain’s half-empty jail being heavily subsidized by county taxpayers.

Ensley is still holding out hope that a compromise can be reached. He said the tribe could possibly look at building a drug-abuse center instead and continue to send prisoners to Swain.

But Cochran said he’s done absolutely everything he could to bring more prisoners to Swain’s mammoth jail. The U.S. Marshals Service continues to send most of their inmates to Cherokee County — despite Bryson City’s advantage of housing a federal courthouse. For the time being, the Swain jail has only three Marshals Service inmates. The Marshals Service claims that the crime rate has decreased

Cochran says he’s traveled to Charlotte and Asheville and spoken with U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler and three state legislators, but to no avail.

“We’re kind of at the mercy of the Marshal Service at this point — to be fair, and I can’t stress that word enough, to be fair,” Cochran said. “We should be getting our fair share. I’m very disgusted with this process.”

 

No more escapes

Cochran said he put policies in place to make the facility more secure after a jail escape involving inside help from a jailer. Cochran said he could not mention specifics on the new procedures for security reasons.

Cochran emphasized that no matter how secure the physical building is, inserting a human element will inevitably bring unpredictability.

“It wouldn’t matter if it was San Quentin, it was going to happen,” said Cochran, citing the inside job.

To ensure that everything is running as it should, Cochran visits the jail every day. “We don’t have those problems anymore,” Cochran said.

Ensley said ensuring the jail’s security is a top priority. He will bring his own work experience at the Swain County jail and a correctional facility in Florida. He plans to provide training and to place an instructional pamphlet at every station to keep jailers up to speed on policy.

Moreover, Ensley promises to keep serious watch over his employees and look out for red flags.

“Folks didn’t really realize how serious some of these warning signals were,” Ensley said.

If something goes wrong under his watch, Ensley said he will take full responsibility.

“If I’m the sheriff, right here is where the buck stops,” Ensley said. “If someone in my department hurts my county, it’s my responsibility. I won’t be standing behind him. I will be standing in front.”

 

Reaching out to community

Swain County Sheriff’s Office already has a great relationship with the community, according to Cochran.

“We have an open line,” said Cochran, adding that his department works with the community every day and makes sure to keep anonymous tips anonymous.

Cochran pointed to recent success busting a meth lab, which could not have happened without tips from residents.

Though some have complained that the sheriff’s office is inconsistent in how it handles calls, Cochran ensures the public that officers do follow through with every concern that is brought up.

Sometimes, the magistrate’s office doesn’t find probable cause or an investigation will dead-end. Moreover, Swain’s limited staff makes it difficult for deputies to jump on every new call right away.

“We’re stretched pretty thin as far as personnel,” Cochran said. “These calls don’t stop coming in just because we don’t have enough personnel, but we do get to them.”

Ensley says he will create an advisory board for the sheriff comprised of experts in law enforcement and business. The board would give level-headed advice to the sheriff and keep in touch with concerned citizens.

Ensley would also like to institute more volunteer programs to get the community involved, including a youth advisory council made up of high school kids. The board would help motivate young adults to take responsibility for their own schools, Ensley said.

Ensley is also in favor of creating a community watch in each of Swain’s communities.

“We don’t want them out there playing police officer, but we want eyes and ears,” Ensley said. “We all have a responsibility whether we’re a sworn officer or not.”

Cochran said he has already made an appointment next month to set up a community watch program.

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