Buncombe County Sheriff

One of the more closely watched local contests may be the Buncombe County sheriff’s race. During Sheriff Bobby L. Medford‘s eight years in office, critics have raised questions about the way he has run his department. And since Medford declined to be interviewed by Xpress, it’s difficult to tell whether a victory by challenger Mike Ruby would signal a major shift in local law-enforcement practices. Ruby, however, promises changes in many areas, from drug enforcement to community policing. Here’s what he had to say:

Mike Ruby

Age: 48

Home: Ridgecrest

Education and training: Asheville High School, 1972; A-B Tech, Basic Law Enforcement Training, 1974; International Association of Chiefs of Police, Progressive Patrol Administration, 1986; N.C. Justice Academy, Executive Development Program, 1992; U.S. Secret Service Dignitary Protection School, 1993.

Law-enforcement experience: Full-time deputy with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department for 20 years; division commander under three sheriffs. Police instructor at the Community Policing Consortium’s Community Policing School. Currently a reserve deputy with the Madison County Sheriff’s Department.

Occupation: Ruby has taken a leave of absence from his position as security director at the Asheville Mall to run for sheriff.

Party: Democratic

Years in the community: Ruby has lived in the area his entire life, except for seven months when he worked in the Greenville, S.C., sheriff’s office.

How much money do you plan to spend on the race?: “Around $50,000.”

Mountain Xpress: What nickname would you give your opponent?

Mike Ruby: “I don’t want to get personal. I’m going to stay away from that.”

MX: What needs to be done at the local level in terms of homeland security?

MR: “First of all, there needs to be an educational process with the citizens, not just the law enforcement. People need to know what to do if there’s another Sept. 11 close to us (or, God forbid, here). We need to have procedures in place so people know what to do. I don’t think the public knows what to expect from local law enforcement in terms of homeland security right now. The second thing starts with the officer in the patrol car. Local police will have more responsibility as far as [homeland security]. We need to have cooperation between local law enforcement and private agencies to make sure what the responsibilities of each are. We need to work in partnerships.”

MX: How can homeland security and public safety be balanced with civil liberties?

MR: “Whatever the law is, we can’t be selective in enforcing it. I’m 100 percent for the protection of people’s rights. I think there’s cases in law enforcement today — vehicle stops — where an officer asks to search a vehicle, the person refuses, and the officer uses that as probable cause. You should have probable cause when you stop the vehicle — like stolen property or drugs. You need that first. We need to make sure in law enforcement that we walk that line and make sure we don’t violate people’s rights. It’s very important. There’s the thing of people being asked to spy on their neighbors. I’m not sure I’m for that. People are good naturally and will report suspicious behavior anyway.”

MX: Are gambling laws evenly enforced in the county?

MR: “There’s not any gambling [laws] at all enforced in the county. It’s a major problem here. Organized crime traditionally enters in that way. We would have strict enforcement — we need to build that wall up. I’m very concerned that there’s not been any gambling arrests in the eight years that the sheriff has been there; it’s wrong. I know there’s been complaints of large sums paid off by poker machines and in convenience stores, sports betting, parlay cards and things of that nature going on. If I’m elected, I’ll make sure we strongly enforce the gambling laws. That the sheriff said he would pay for the legal fees for a captain, Miles Webb, who was convicted of operating a gambling operation in 1997, sends a terrible message to people out there. A lot of people look at gambling as a victimless crime. In South Carolina, where they outlawed the poker machines, I don’t think that’s the case. Gambling usually preys on the people who can’t afford to lose money. That’s the sad part of it.”

MX: Are laws concerning drug production and use evenly enforced in Buncombe County? How would you address drugs?

MR: “This is the largest county in Western North Carolina and one of the largest in the state. It bothers me that we can turn on the news and see that in Madison County, the sheriff there is doing flyovers to look for this kind of activity or that in McDowell County, they uncover an indoor amphetamine laboratory, but we don’t hear anything about a drug roundup in Buncombe County. No one can remember the last time they heard of a bust in eight years. People need to know what’s going on in law enforcement. It’s a problem in Buncombe County. The Sheriff’s Department needs to be far, far more accessible to the public — it belongs to them. I would report the good and the bad in law enforcement. If we look like we have something to hide, then we get mistrust of law enforcement. Just as important is that we work in partnership with agencies on the other end. We need to have a presence in school to prevent drug use and work with agencies that treat drug offenders, so we can refer people that have a drug problem. That would be better than an arrest. We want to solve the problem by whatever means necessary. But that doesn’t mean I would be soft on drugs. I believe in tough enforcement of drug laws, too.

“When I worked in the Sheriff’s Department, we used to see a reporter coming our way and say, ‘Uh-oh.’ I’d like to have departments that are liaisons to the public and the media. We need to break down those barriers. We need satellite offices out in the county. We could still have the central administration in Asheville. We wouldn’t have to put a burden on the taxpayers — we could just get a storefront or rent a room and say we’ll clean it or paint it and have a resource center for people to report a crime, get information. I would have eight- to 10-member boards for the satellite offices made up of all kinds of people, from factory workers to high-school kids. We would meet with them regularly and discuss what’s going on there. That’s bringing the department to the people. We need to work in partnerships to solve problems, not just wait until we’re needed and come out.”

MX: If a sheriff’s job is limited to interpreting existing law, what does party affiliation have to do with the office?

MR: “I think that the Democratic Party is far more service-oriented than the Republican Party. I believe in the Democratic platform and what they stand for. But I’m not going to ask people what their [party] affiliation is when they come in. I want to create an environment where young, qualified people can come in and work beyond four years, regardless of their affiliation. They think they’re going to get fired because they’re not of the same party as the sheriff. I want to have due process for firing and administration. We’re one of 12 states that don’t require due process for firing. I would put it in my policy that no one will be fired without cause. For too long, jobs in the Sheriff’s Department have been used for political patronage. An example is the 400-plus reserve deputies they have. It’s gross political patronage; good-ol’-boy politics is all it is.”

MX: How do you feel about the way the Sheriff’s Department deals with domestic violence?

MR: “Medford used to leave it up to the officer’s discretion whether or not to make an arrest or recommend a warrant. Fortunately, the law changed in 2000. Now, it’s mandatory for an officer to make an arrest if there is evidence of an assault. It puts the issue in the courts, where it belongs.”

MX: Is racial profiling a problem in the county? What can be done about it?

MR: “I think it exists more than people think it does here, and it happens across the country. That’s an important issue, and we need to combat it. One way is to be in partnership with people and organizations that fight the thing, like the NAACP and the Buncombe County Community Relations Program. We also need to look at the way we hire officers and make sure we’re hiring the right kind of people. It may need to be different than the way we’ve traditionally done it. Traditionally, officers are those who are big and strong and can shoot a gun straight. That’s important, but we need to look at aptitudes, people perhaps who can be good communicators and come from different backgrounds, people who are well-rounded.”

MX: What are the biggest issues facing law enforcement in the county?

MR: “I’m concerned about the homicide rate in the county. There’s not a crime-prevention program for that; it’s a society problem. If it’s domestic in nature or drug-related, we need to attack it from that end. So I’m concerned about the homicides, but I’m more concerned about the everyday crimes like home break-ins and business break-ins. We need more preventative measures out there. We need to be active partners with our communities.

“When I was a crime-prevention officer at the Sheriff’s Department in the late ’70s, I and another crime-prevention officer, the late John Heatherly, started the Community Watch Program in Buncombe County. It took the Neighborhood Watch Program and brought it further. We would get people to inspect homes and tell you what types of locks you needed on your doors. The [current] Sheriff’s Department will send someone out to set up a program for you if you and your neighbors want a Community Watch Program, but we had it in every community. It was incorporated into the philosophy of the department. I would absolutely do that again. I also would add more patrol deputies. That would allow deputies more time to go into communities. That would be community policing, not just lip service.”

MX: What is one thing you like about the way the current Sheriff’s Department is run?

MR: “I commend the sheriff for putting school-resource officers in the schools; that’s important. We need to make sure that our children are in a safe environment. I would expand that, however, to have the officers in a summer program for at-risk kids or kids with disciplinary problems, to teach them about leadership, jobs and how to make smart choices. That’s a way to prevent crime.”

MX: What would be one major difference between the current department and yours, if you were elected?

MR: “Budget is the buzzword. The Sheriff’s Department budget was $10 million in 1994 and is $18 million now. He [Sheriff Medford] has the same amount of patrol deputies as when he took office. The population has grown from 170,000 to 220,000 in Buncombe County, and the crime index hasn’t gone down. The last statistics I heard was that the crime rate was up by 12 percent in the county, though it was down 8 percent in Asheville. The budget has gone up an average of $1 million a year, and patrol deputies haven’t gone up by one. There are several people listed as administrative assistants in the department. They’ve expanded the high-ranking officers; they’re all captains or lieutenants over there. I’m going to streamline that if I’m elected. I don’t need all kinds of administrative assistants around me. Right now, the ratio is one detective per two patrol deputies. They shouldn’t have any crimes that are not solved with that ratio. There are people assigned to the jail doing jobs the county doesn’t even know about. I would squeeze people down in entry level, put them on the front lines, out protecting people. That’s where we need them.”

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