Q: Haywood County has a growing Hispanic population. How will you address language barriers in serving that population?

Hollifield: Would sign deputies up for Spanish classes at the community colleges and would employ an interpreter.

Suttles: Agrees that deputies should take Spanish classes. Also, says the department currently has translators that help officers communicate.

Allen: “I think the language barrier is a serious problem in our county. I think officers in this county should take Spanish classes, and I would promote classes for deputies at the community college.”

Ezell: Understanding the “cultural differences between where they grew up and our area,” is critical. For example, the way a question is asked can take on a different meaning according to cultural context.

Gilliland: Overcoming the language barrier is most important.

 

Q: If appointed, would you seek re-election?

Kenneth Hollifield: Yes.

Bobby Suttles: Yes.

Albert Allen: Yes. Allen said he had already planned to run for sheriff in 2010, and that his campaign had been in the works for 8 months when the position opened up earlier than expected.

Raymond Ezell: Yes.

Russ Gilliland: Yes, and like Allen, Gilliland already had a core group of people lined up to help him when he planned to run for sheriff in 2010.

 

Q: How will you fight drug problems in the county?

Hollifield: Would create a drug eradication team. He would also meet with members of a different community on different nights to collect citizen input. Also touts drug education in schools.

Suttles: Says marijuana is still the prevalent drug in Haywood County. Also said the sheriff’s office has applied for a grant to create an enforcement team of five people that could monitor I-40, a major drug route.

Allen: Working cooperatively with other agencies and groups and members of the community. With this approach, “we can beat the drug dealers.”

Ezell: Create a task force; work with surrounding counties to share information; educate citizens on signs of drug activity and educate kids in the school system about the dangers of drugs.

Gilliland: Teach drug education in schools. He would also send his deputies to the same drug and addiction school that Gilliland himself attended.

 

Q: How would you handle complaints within the sheriff’s department?

Hollifield: Encourages creation of an internal affairs committee, consisting of someone in the detention center, deputies, and detectives.

Suttles: A complaint currently travels through the chain of command, going from seargant to lieutenant to the chief deputy, then to the sheriff. “If it’s something of a serious nature, we might have an outside agency handle it.”

Allen: “If it’s something internally, I think it should be handled internally.” Also, facts of an investigation that could reflect on the department as a whole should be shared with employees of the sheriff’s department.

Ezell: Would be open to getting someone from outside the department, who has an impartial viewpoint, to conduct an investigation. “That way, it doesn’t hurt people within the department. If you gave them that investigation, it just causes problems.”

Gilliland: “Most of the time, anything that comes up is normally taken care of through the chain of command, but if it’s necessary to bring in outside counseling that’ something we could very well do.”

Five candidates vying to be the next Haywood County Sheriff appeared at a question and answer forum Saturday, Jan. 24 before a crowd of almost 100, the majority of which were members of the Haywood County Democratic Party executive committee.

The written questions posed by the audience were varied, from how each candidate would handle a crisis to methods for combating the local drug problem to why they are the best choice to succeed outgoing Sheriff Tom Alexander.

Alexander will retire from the post he’s held for 22 years on Feb. 2. Sheriffs are usually elected to office, but since Alexander still has two years left in his term, the county’s Democratic executive committee — composed of all Democratic elected officials, plus party chairs and vice chairs from each of the 31 Haywood precincts — must appoint a replacement. The committee will vote Feb. 7 for a new sheriff, and county commissioners must approve the choice.

Here’s a sampling of the questions asked, along with the candidates’ answers:

Q: What do you think the personality of the sheriff should reflect?

Hollifield: A sheriff must be approachable. “Make yourself available and always carry yourself in a professional way.”

Suttles: A sheriff should be honest and fair, and someone that people know they can always come in and talk to.

Allen: “First of all, the sheriff needs to have a very positive attitude.”

Ezell: Integrity is the most important trait. “That is paramount.” The sheriff also needs to be an effective communicator who can easily talk to people.

Gilliland: “You have to have a heart for service, and you have to have a heart for the people of Haywood County.” Dedication and approachability are also important. “I’m dedicated to this county — I have never wanted to leave and go somewhere else.”

Q: What makes you the best candidate?

Hollifield: “Even though I’ve been out of law enforcement for quite some time, I have not forgotten the professionalism. The law applies to every person, and I will make sure that the laws are enforced.” He also promises to crack down on underage drinking in particular.

Suttles: Experience — he’s had 35 years of law enforcement experience, including 15 years in the sheriff’s department. He’s most familiar with the inner workings of the sheriff’s office. “I’ve trained under Sheriff Tom, and he’s run a good ship.”

Allen: Law enforcement experience in different areas — he’s worked across various judicial districts, and worked with officers to prepare cases for trial.

Ezell: His experience as a polygraph examiner and inspector for the U.S. Postal Service has given him “broad perspective dealing not only with state agencies, but federal agencies and law enforcement; also makes me appreciate the conditions we have to operate within and gives me an appreciation of what citizens expect from the sheriff’s department.”

Gilliland: He has diversified work experience, from law enforcement to business, which is critical for a sheriff, who must “wear many hats.”

Q: How would you handle budget concerns with the county commissioners?

Hollifield: “What I would attempt to do is cut out excess spending.” He’ll also request the State Bureau of Investigation conduct an audit to make sure everything is in place.

Suttles: Said the current sheriff’s department budget is $3.7 million, more than half of which goes toward running the county’s jail. “We’ve already cut back some, but I know they’re going to ask for another cut. We don’t want to lay off anybody. We’ll take a look at it, and I’m sure we’ll find a way to cut it back somewhere.”

Allen: Would maintain an open dialogue with the county manager.

Ezell: Would break the budget down item by item. “Then, identify those areas that are completely critical. Those are the things that can’t be cut. Then you look at what’s left, and you try to make it as cost effective as you possibly can.”

Gilliland: Would seek out federal and state grants to ease budget constraints.

Sheriff candidates:

• Raymond Ezell — Retired polygraph examiner for U.S. Postal Service; former criminal investigator for postal service, B.S. in Criminology

• Ken Hollifield — Former highway patrolman and sheriff’s deputy; currently a truck driver

• Bobby Suttles — Current chief deputy and 14-year employee of sheriff’s department; former Waynesville police officer

• Albert Allen — Former highway patrolman; currently chief of security at Haywood Regional Medical Center

• Russell Gilliland — Current Maggie Valley police officer; formerly owner/operator of HVAC Electrical Company

Allegations that the Swain County Sheriff’s Department mishandled the capture of an escaped inmate earlier this month has strained the already-tense relationship between county officials and Sheriff Curtis Cochran.

Jody Smallwood, 37, escaped from a holding room in the Swain County courthouse Jan. 5. The seven-hour search for Smallwood, involving both county and Bryson City law enforcement, ended with a high-speed chase down U.S. 74.

When Smallwood made a last ditch effort to elude capture at the end of the chase, Cochran says he drew his weapon and fired two shots at the tire of the stolen van Smallwood was driving in order to disable the vehicle. Smallwood was then Tased and apprehended, according to local media reports (Cochran wouldn’t comment on the Tasing).

But a letter received by the county, signed “A Concerned Citizen,” claims the capture of Smallwood was mishandled.

“I have reason to believe that the apprehension of an escaped inmate from the Swain County Jail ... was grossly mishandled and that excessive force was used,” the anonymous letter states.

The letter writer claims that Cochran, who has not undergone basic law enforcement training and had no law enforcement experience prior to being elected in 2006, violated policies and procedures put forth by the Swain County Sheriff’s Office by using deadly force to apprehend Smallwood, even though the situation did not present an imminent threat.

The letter also accuses law enforcement officials of unnecessarily beating and Tasing Smallwood repeatedly.

County Clerk Cindi Woodard emailed the letter on Jan. 12 to the board of county commissioners and to two media outlets — the Smoky Mountain News and The Smoky Mountain Times. Though the letter is public record, making public a complaint that reflects negatively on a county department has happened rarely in Swain County.

The county defended its decision to release the letter, saying that emails received by the county’s account are public record, and that media outlets have before requested to be informed of such complaints.

“We just did proper procedure,” said County Manager Kevin King. “It came to (Commissioner Chairman) Glenn Jones, who received it via the county email account. That made it a public document at that point in time. (Media outlets) have indicated that they want to get those letters.”

Jones said he just wanted the county to play it safe, in case the complaints materialized into something bigger.

“What if something happened and you were to come by and say, if you had this letter, why didn’t’ you send it to me?” Jones said.

Jones said he felt the letter was legitimate, although King said it was signed with a false name. King said he had already “heard rumors from other individuals about some of the stuff,” contained in the letter.

Cochran, meanwhile, says the county probably had its own motives for sending out the letter — and it wasn’t to follow protocol.

“I smell politics all over this,” he said.

The sheriff and county officials are currently at odds over a lawsuit that Cochran filed against the county. In it, Cochran, a Republican, demands a pay increase to match the salary of the former sheriff, a Democrat. The sheriff’s salary was slashed when the county did away with a practice that once served as a salary supplement, just as Cochran took office. Cochran claims partisan prejudice played a factor.

But when King was asked whether the lawsuit played a part in the county’s decision to send out a letter that reflected negatively on the sheriff, his answer was, “absolutely not.”

As far as looking further into complaints alleged in the letter, county officials say it’s not their responsibility to oversee the sheriff’s department.

“He’s an elected official, and he’s supposed to take care of his own department,” said Jones.

King agreed.

“We’re not a watchdog of the sheriff — the people are,” King said. “If he’s done wrongdoing, other people would have to bring a suit against the county. We have no control over what the sheriff does.”

 

Probing the escape

The sheriff’s department has launched an investigation — but not into what happened when Smallwood was apprehended.

“The only thing we’re investigating is how he got out of the holding cell,” said Cochran. “We don’t have an investigation on nothing else.”

There is no statewide policy in place that mandates an investigation when shots are fired. Instead, it’s up to the individual law enforcement agencies.

It may be impossible to ever prove whether Smallwood’s apprehension was handled correctly. But the writer of the anonymous letter received by the county claims that the incident could have gone more smoothly if Cochran, who fired the gun, had undergone basic law enforcement training.

“Maybe this is the kind of law enforcement you have when you give an untrained man a badge and a gun,” it states.

Cochran is quick to defend his lack of experience, and says voters have put their trust in him for a reason.

“I was qualified by the people of Swain County in November of 2006 to be sheriff,” he said.

Democratic officials in Haywood County are gearing up to choose a successor to outgoing Haywood County Sheriff Tom Alexander, who will retire from his post of more than 22 years on Feb. 2.

Sheriffs are usually elected to office, but since Alexander still has two years left in his term, the county’s Democratic Executive Committee must appoint a replacement.

Alexander said he had considered retiring before winning his sixth term in 2006, but wanted to stay on through the completion of the county’s law enforcement and justice center.

The committee is taking resumes for the sheriff post until 5 p.m. on Jan. 21.

Haywood County Democratic Party Chairman Bill Jones said he’s already been contacted by several people who want the sheriff position, but was unsure as of press time how many candidates will vie for the spot (a list of candidates will be available on the Smoky Mountain News Web site after the resume deadline).

“I’ve been contacted by several individuals, but there’s a big difference between contacting and actually doing it,” he said. “We know there will be more than one or two. It’s going to be very interesting.”

The candidates will appear at a forum from 1 to 3 p.m. the following Saturday, Jan. 24, where they’ll state their case for why they should be the next sheriff and field questions from the Democratic Executive Committee.

The executive committee is comprised of an assortment of county Democrats. The group includes all Democratic elected officials — everyone from mayors to the tax collector to the register of deeds — plus the party’s chairs and vice chairs from each of the 31 precincts.

Jones said the committee is taking the responsibility of selecting a new sheriff very seriously.

“We’re charged with electing a person who is capable and qualified of being sheriff for all the citizens of Haywood County,” Jones said. “This is a heavy responsibility, and not something to be taken lightly. We look at it with a heavy sense of duty.”

The executive committee will vote for a sheriff at its Feb. 7 meeting. A candidate must receive 50 percent of the votes plus one additional vote to win election. The committee will hold as many votes as needed until one candidate emerges with the majority.

The executive committee will recommend the winning candidate to the Haywood County Board of Commissioners. If commissioners take action and approve the choice at their next possible meeting, the county could have a new sheriff in place as early as Feb. 16.

Chief Deputy Bobby Suttles, the sheriff’s office second in command, will take the helm of the department in the interim between Alexander’s retirement and the selection of a new sheriff.

Alexander’s retirement comes amid allegations that he may be involved in the video poker investigation that has already sent former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford to prison. A witness during Medford’s trial mentioned the Haywood County sheriff being paid off, and at least two subpoenas have been issued for information about Alexander and the sheriff’s department. No charges have been filed.

Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran has estimated how much his predecessor might have made under the table feeding jail inmates: the figure comes in well over $100,000 a year.

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

A 3 to 1 vote by the Swain County Board of Commissioners last week will effectively reduce the salary of the newly elected sheriff.

An uncharacteristically large crowd packed the Swain County commissioners meeting last week (Nov. 21) to oppose a move that will effectively lower the salary of the newly elected sheriff.

When word of a shooting in Whittier roused Swain County Sheriff Bob Ogle from his house last Thursday night, he arrived at a complex crime scene.

By Sarah Kucharski

The heated race for sheriff in Jackson County is closing in on the May 2 primary date in which voters will decide which candidate, incumbent Jimmy Ashe or former sheriff Jim Cruzan, will head up the agency for the next four years.

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