The position was left vacant by retired Sheriff Bobby Suttles, who served just four years in the post. Christopher was chosen as the new sheriff by Haywood County Democratic Party leaders during the weekend and was affirmed by county commissioners Monday. He received two standing ovations from a room full of supporters and sheriff’s deputies after the commissioners unanimously approved his nomination.
Christopher thanked Democratic leaders for their vote of confidence and assured people that he takes his responsibility to protect Haywood County citizens and his employees “very, very seriously.”
“I will do my best to do my job to take care of these men and women,” Christopher said.
Suttles retired with two years left of his term. Suttles was a Democrat, and that meant the job of picking a replacement was up to the party bosses.
“We believe Mr. Christopher is highly worthy and a great candidate for this office,” said Janie Benson, chairwoman of the Haywood Democratic Party.
Chief Deputy Larry Bryson, second-in-command under Suttles, was also vying for the nomination. He got 32 votes, while Christopher got 104.
Christopher wasted no time his first day as sheriff, beginning the swearing-in of all the current deputies, which must be done with each change in leadership; an equipment inventory, and meeting with county leaders.
Christopher named Jeff Haynes, a detective with the Waynesville Police Department, as his chief deputy. Earlier in his career, Haynes worked for the sheriff’s office and rose to the rank of lieutenant before joining Waynesville’s force, first as a patrol officer and then a detective.
“Haynes is extremely credible and professional,” Christopher said. “I’m really glad to have him as the chief deputy.”
Based on feedback from residents, Christopher said there are three key areas he would like to focus on during the onset of his administration: the professionalism of the office, customer service and collaboration with other law enforcement agencies — including police from Maggie Valley, Clyde, Canton and Waynesville, as well as state law enforcement agencies.
Picking Haynes as his right-hand man could help on that front.
“Obviously, that would only increase the level of communication between the two agencies, by having somebody down there that was a member of this agency,” Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed said. “(Haynes) has developed some very, very good relationships with people in both agencies.”
Hollingsed said the sheriff’s office is lucky to have Haynes as the second-in-command.
“Jeff Haynes is a very experienced officer. He has lots of years not only at the Waynesville police department but also lots of experience in operations and administration at the sheriff’s office,” Hollingsed said.
Another change Christopher wants to implement is indeed an administrative one: expanding reception hours at the office.
“We’re going to try to improve so that more people have access rather than the 9-5 they have now,” Christopher said.
He would also like to start staffing the substation in Canton.
In the longer term, the new sheriff wants to increase the deputy force from its current five per shift. He said five deputies per shift to patrol a county as geographically large as Haywood with a population of 60,000 is too little coverage. That equates to one deputy per 12,000 residents at any given time.
“I want to substantially increase that number because our county is so large,” he said. “We want to work on getting more deputies onto the road.”
Christopher plans to meet with local school officials about posting deputies in more schools, as well.
He also wants to look at the equipment used by deputies and make sure each has a vehicle equipped with a laptop — called a mobile data terminal and used to access criminal and state databases — as well as mounted cameras.
Christopher even indicated he’d like to provide drug rehabilitation and outreach services through the sheriff’s office.
Christopher said he believes drug abuse is at the root of the county’s crime problem and can be linked to many robberies, break-ins and other property crimes menacing local residents.
A prescription drug epidemic has begun to surpass meth as the biggest drug scourge in the county and is taking lives through overdoses.
“Meth is still a huge problem in Haywood County,” Christopher said. “But prescription drugs are also a real issue that we are going to attack.”
Also, as a method to track down suspects and wanted criminals, warn the public about scams and collect crime tips from citizen, Christopher will have the sheriff’s office utilize social media like Twitter and Facebook. There, the agency will post surveillance videos, issue alerts and interact with citizens.
Christopher also indicated that he plans on running again in two years, and that this post is no short stint for him.
“This is a long-term commitment for me,” Christopher said. “As native of the county, I want to give back.”
Republican Bill Wilke, who ran for sheriff two years ago, has already announced his intentions to run again in two years, when the sheriff’s position is officially up for election by county voters.
Christopher will earn $74,285 a year as sheriff — the same amount as former Sheriff Bobby Suttles. The salaries of sheriffs in comparable counties are between $80,000 and $85,000, Mark Swanger, chairman of the county board of commissioners said.
“He specifically asked that it not be increased,” Swanger said.
Staff writers Caitlin Bowling and Becky Johnson contribute to this article.