Buncombe County sheriff candidates Van Duncan and Bobby Medford met for their first public debate at an Oct. 18 luncheon organized by the Leadership Asheville Forum at the Country Club of Asheville.
In his opening statement, before a crowd about 75 people, the Republican incumbent Medford outlined his local roots and said he wasn’t running against anyone but was running for the office of sheriff. He touted the school resource-officer program he began in 1995 and his assignment of officers to coordinate with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Agency.
“It’s a 24-hour-a-day job, seven days a week,” Medford said of serving as sheriff. “The job starts before 7 a.m. [when] the phone starts ringing, and ends some time after midnight.”
Duncan, the Democratic challenger, used his opening to criticize the sheriff department’s response time, which averages 34 minutes for all calls, as well as a decline in successful completion of cases and drug arrests. He also summarized his proposals for shaking up the department, from shifting from a five-squad to a four-squad system (which he said would permit placement of more officers on the street), re-forming a community-enforcement team similar to the city’s drug-suppression team, using interstate interdiction to stanch the flow of drugs, creating a summer-camp program for at-risk youth and getting faith-based and addiction-recovery counselors into the Buncombe County Detention Center to help reduce the recidivism rate.
Pitching some curve balls
Each candidate had been asked to prepare two questions for his opponent. Duncan asked the first: “What do you see as the biggest problems facing the department and how might you reorganize the department to address new issues that might emerge in the future?”
Medford responded that most of the problems facing the county involve drugs. He discounted SBI statistics about his department’s record on drug arrests, saying they were incomplete, and commented on the dangers of drugs. He then discussed the number of mental-health cases the department deals with and said that sometimes patrol cars meet each other coming and going from Broughton, the state mental-health facility in Morganton.
Medford then asked a question in the form of an extended discussion of his record as sheriff and the difficult choices he had weighed given the gradual increase in the number of deputies over the years. “I’ll let you figure out the rest [of my question],” he concluded. The sum of the statement questioned Duncan’s plan to reorganize the department, a choice Medford said he had rejected.
Duncan replied with a quick overview of his proposed shift from five to four squads, which, he said, would increase the officers per shift from 12 to 16. He would also assign a detective assigned to each squad, which, he said, would make investigation of crime scenes more prompt and effective. “The Asheville Police Department just went to a four-squad system,” he said. “From what I understand, the success with the shift has been great.”
Duncan added that there would be a benefit to having the department’s personnel work schedules similar to those of the APD. “The best thing we get with the county and city working the same shift is that we get teams who are used to working with each other. Criminals don’t observe county or city boundaries. If we share information and work together collaboratively, both agencies are going to be much more effective.
Duncan then asked Medford: “You’ve mentioned professional leadership in your campaign. What is your vision of professional leadership in the sheriff’s office?”
“That’s really easy to say,” the incumbent replied, then referenced his ability to find qualified personnel. “There’s not that that many people willing to go out and die for $32,000 per year.” He confessed that “sometimes I cheat a little bit and try to hire away from the APD or other departments, like they do me, but it’s hard, because they pay more.”
Medford didn’t have a second question for Duncan, instead joking, “I hope my grandson beats your son in the upcoming football tournament.”
With the crowd laughing, Duncan replied, “The simple answer to that question is, ‘He did.'”
Out of the bleachers
At that point, members of the audience posed questions for both candidates. The first was “How would you work with the Asheville Police Department?”
Duncan asserted that “that relationship is not currently as good as it could be; there is currently no mechanism in place to enable communication between the departments.” He described a robbery case he said he had investigated for the sheriff’s department that involved the same suspects as a home invasion in the city; the connection was made only after informal word-of-mouth between officers from each department. “We could pool equipment like they do in Wake County, for crime-scene investigation,” he suggested. “That equipment is very specialized and very expensive, and both departments could benefit.”
Medford said that he had sworn APD detectives as deputies and provided radios to the state Highway Patrol to keep that force in touch with his department. “I’ve hired retired APD officers,” he added. “They’re still young. You can’t buy that kind of experience.”
The next question was, “How do you handle illegal immigrants who break the law?”
Medford replied, “About nine or 10 years ago we had a problem with some Spanish folks and I called the federal government. They said they would only come if I had a bus load. I didn’t have a bus load.” He went on to explain that several counties were now cooperating and that illegals apprehended for criminal activity would be sent to Hendersonville for processing.
Duncan explained the new system, which includes a six-week course for law-enforcement officers and relies on a computerized “10-print system” for speedy identification, and concurred that the system should expedite handling of illegal immigrants who commit crimes.
The next question was multifaceted, touching on what should be done with owners of the planes and trucks used to smuggle drugs, what should be done about producers of methamphetamines, how to be fair to immigrants who come here to work versus those who come to commit crimes, and how justice can be meted out fairly to people regardless of socioeconomic status.
Duncan addressed methamphetamines, first noting that the drug hasn’t been a particular problem in the Asheville/Buncombe area, where crack cocaine is far more popular. He acknowledged that meth is a much more terrible scourge and noted that North Carolina has a new law making it harder to buy precursor drugs in bulk. “So, it is becoming a transportation issue, an interdiction issue, because methamphetamines are now coming in from elsewhere.”
Medford addressed the issue of what to do with the property of high-level drug dealers. “If we catch them, we take everything that they have that we can possibly take legally — a house, a car, whatever. But they’re getting smarter. They don’t drive expensive cars anymore, they get a four- or five-hundred dollar old trap and drive that. And even if they’re driving a $10,000 car, if they owe $9,500 [on it] it’s not worth going after.”
Out of the ballpark
Next the candidates were asked, “You’ve talked about illegal immigrants, but what percentage of drug trade is locally run?”
Medford replied, “I would say probably less than 5 percent [of illegal immigrants] are bringing drugs in, but out of that 5 percent you’re talking millions and millions and millions of dollars worth of drugs. Most [immigrants] cross the border to work.” He added, “I’ve had officers out in New Mexico, Texas, you name it, with the Metropolitan Enforcement Group. The big part of the drugs are coming in … from out West.”
Duncan answered, “That’s why I feel so strongly about the immigration-control and enforcement program we’ll have in the Detention Center. We can separate the people who are here to work and contribute from the folks who are here to wreak havoc on society. There’s still a problem with secure borders. That is a huge problem than has to be addressed at the federal level. But I think this identification-and-enforcement program will help at the local level.”