Jackson County sheriff’s race reaches full tilt

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.

In 2002, Ashe, who had resigned from his post as chief deputy of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department and was working as an officer at Western Carolina University, defeated then two-term incumbent Cruzan by 716 votes in the Democratic primary. Ashe went on to defeat Republican Curtis Lambert that November.

Since the turnover, the sheriff’s office has moved into new headquarters with a new jail — both construction projects that were begun under Cruzan’s tenure, but whose use went to Ashe.

“We are very proud of our new facility and detention center,” Ashe said. “It has helped us deliver the highest caliber of professional services to our community.”

However, Cruzan disagrees, as a majority of his platform has been based on yearly statistics reported to the State Bureau of Investigation that show a steady increase in crime since Ashe took office. For example, the number of rapes reported increased from 1 in 2002 to 21 in 2004. Robberies went up from 0 in 2002 to 7 in 2004. Aggravated assaults are up from 17 in 2002 to 84 in 2004. Motor vehicle thefts rose from 14 in 2002 to 78 in 2004.

The rise in crime presents a sort of chicken and the egg conundrum. Surely no one ever stops to think about who’s sheriff before committing a crime, but perhaps if law enforcement presence was prevalent enough throughout a community perpetrators might have fewer opportunities to break the law. And is it really that the number of crimes is going up, or are there more being reported than there were before?

Such answers are hard to pin down. Ashe — who said that statistics will show the crime rate leveling out from 2004 to 2005 — has attributed a majority of crime to drugs, particularly methamphetamines.

“Felony drug arrests have been the biggest increase,” he said.

In 2004, the sheriff’s office made three arrests for the sale/manufacturing of opium or cocaine, four arrests for the sale/manufacturing of marijuana and two arrests for the sale/manufacturing of other dangerous drugs. Arrests for possession of those same drugs totaled 107.

During his last full year in office Cruzan had three sale/manufacturing arrests for the same drugs, and 44 possession arrests.

However, Cruzan said there’s more to rising crime rates.

“Anytime you have an increase in population you have a potential for higher crime. Drugs along with relaxed law enforcement also contribute somewhat to higher crime,” Cruzan said in a written response. “The above reasons combined with poor leadership skills and managerial skills of the current administration I feel is to blame for the rise in crime.”

Ashe does not concur with Cruzan’s assessment of his leadership skills. One of the things Ashe said he has particularly focused on is improving inner-office relations.

“One of the things I have a pet peeve about is interdepartmental strife,” Ashe said. “I can say the morale in the 25 years (as a deputy), and three years (as sheriff) I’ve been here is the strongest.”

However, Cruzan wants to get back to the basics.

“In the last three years I have seen crime skyrocket, heard complaints from citizens that calls are going unanswered and not investigated and I have seen the clearance rate of criminal investigations decline,” Cruzan said in a written response. “I know I can change this around and get back to the basics of ‘serve and protect’ where all calls are answered, crime will be reduced and cases will be solved with the format I will initiate as sheriff.”

The percentage of crimes cleared has gone down across the board during Ashe’s term in office. The sheriff’s office cleared only 33 percent of violent crimes and 9 percent of property crimes in 2003, Ashe’s first full year in office. Those numbers rose to 59 percent clearance of violent crimes and 13 percent clearance of property crimes the following year.

Cruzan registered significantly higher clearance rates during his last two full years in office. 2000 saw a 65 percent clearance rate of violent crimes and 15 percent clearance rate of property crimes. In 2001, those rates rose to 72 percent and 24 percent respectively.

However, a higher rate of clearance is more likely when there are fewer crimes to solve.

For example, in 2000 Cruzan saw 37 violent crimes to Ashe’s 24 in 2003. There were 29 violent crimes in 2001 to 63 in 2004. Where the numbers really jump is in property crimes. Cruzan saw 185 property crimes in 2000 to Ashe’s 327 in 2003. There were 170 property crimes in 2001 to 691 in 2004.

In addition to decreasing the crime rate, both Ashe and Cruzan have goals for their next term in office if elected.

“I wish I could have been able to accomplish the goals that I’ve set forth for the next term in this term,” Ashe said.

Ashe is looking to improve courtroom security, increase usage of the inmate work program, expand the existing chaplaincy program and establish a stronger bond with the county’s youth, most likely through the creation of an Explorers group — a sort of law enforcement meets Scouting program.

“It is vital for the relationship with the citizens of this county and the office of sheriff to be maintained,” Ashe said. “We have common threads and when those threads are bonded it creates a community.”

Cruzan wants to improve upon the office’s consistency in processing crime scenes by hiring a professional crime scene technician.

“This should increase the amount of crimes being solved and free up deputies to handle other calls,” Cruzan said in a written response.

The position would be used to handle incidents that may otherwise involve an agent from the State Bureau of Investigation, which recently opened a new office in Asheville.

“Yes, SBI does have a new crime lab in Asheville, however SBI is a beneficial support agency and should be used as such,” Cruzan said in a written response.

He also wants to expand the office’s narcotics unit, have detectives working at night, increase road patrols, particularly on back roads. Balancing out the budget will including eliminating “nonessential budget items that have no benefit to public safety,” Cruzan said in a written response.

“Some examples are the cost of vehicle painting, change of uniforms, patches, badges and more. These items do nothing to protect the public or increase safety and benefits to the deputies. This money could be used for paid tips, equipment that is needed, more manpower, or to educate the public on criminal activities or public awareness programs,” he said.

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