Swain sheriff candidates head for final showdown in high stakes raceWritten by Bibeka Shrestha
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.