Buncombe County Democrats are picking their choice for a new sheriff in the primary election on May 8. The five Democratic candidates have differing takes on how to shape the next iteration of the office. And though they find common ground on topics from drugs to community engagement, competition is fierce as they vie for support.
According to popular, thrice-elected Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan, the best act to follow his tenure is one that promises to look a lot like his own.
Of Capt. Randy Smart, Duncan wrote in his retirement announcement, “I believe the best hope for keeping consistent, high-quality service is having leadership that understands the culture of this agency and its guiding principles. It is for this reason that I am announcing my intention to support our current Executive Lieutenant, Randy Smart, to be your next sheriff.”
Smart and his team, Duncan says, understand “some of the things that are unique to a sheriff’s office: the jail, civil process, maintaining security in the courts — those things that fall directly to the sheriff, that if you haven’t worked in a sheriff’s office … it’d be a huge learning curve.”
Having spent his entire 25-year career in the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, Smart says the continuity he represents is in the community’s best interests. Explaining his decision to run, Smart says, “We wanted to continue forward with what we’ve accomplished, and I’m part of that.”
Drug-related crime represents the biggest challenge to progress the sheriff’s office has made in reducing crime rates, Smart says. He plans to continue working with other agencies to serve those struggling with addiction.
A seamless leadership transition, Smart asserts, will save time and money while providing the community with uninterrupted service.
Ready for a change?
The campaign of retired Asheville Police Department executive R. Daryl Fisher certainly has energy — not all of it in Fisher’s favor. In an offhand remark at an event convened by Moms Demand Gun Action for Gun Sense in America, Fisher deadpanned his response to gun rights boosters’ claim that those hoping to implement tighter restrictions on firearms will have to pry the weapons “from their cold dead hands”: “OK,” Fisher said.
Video of the quip made the rounds on right-wing websites and prompted some to imply that Fisher advocates killing gun owners in order to take their weapons. Fisher says he meant nothing of the sort. The speech may have helped gain support from the left, which could be key in the primary but could also cost him support in the fall.
For his part, Fisher says, “Gun enthusiasts oftentimes will use that statement and they will oftentimes try to use what I call scare tactics in order to talk someone out of proposing gun legislation.”
Fisher says he worked his way up the ranks of the APD. He supervised detectives taking on major cases in the investigative and drug suppression units, commanded SWAT and, as a captain, oversaw support and patrol divisions. He also pursued additional education, earning advanced degrees he says would make him, if elected, “the most educated and highest trained sheriff in the history of Buncombe County.”
Rondell Lance is another retired APD veteran seeking the Buncombe County leadership position. Lance worked vice and undercover drug operations, was a sergeant in the downtown unit and commanded the crisis negotiation unit. He is in his 20th year as president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Lance faults Duncan’s decision to support Smart from the beginning of the race. “A lot of people feel like the sheriff should step out of the way and let the community decide,” he says. Politics don’t belong in the sheriff’s office and politics have been involved in promotion decisions there, Lance says.
But the outspoken advocate of those in blue has made some political calculations of his own in deciding to run as a Democrat. According to Board of Elections data, the unaffiliated Lance has most frequently voted in Republican primaries in the past.
While he toyed with the idea of running as an independent, Lance says, he wasn’t sure he’d succeed in collecting the 8,000 signatures required to get on the ballot. Having voted for candidates from both parties himself, he believes most county voters are primarily focused on picking the right person for the job. “That’s why you have more independent voters in Buncombe County than you do Republican voters, because people are tired of it,” he says.
Cop on the beat
APD Sgt. Quentin Miller is still on the job with the city, having filled a variety of roles, including school resource officer and community resource officer over his 24-year career. The Asheville native — who served in the armed forces for 11 years before signing up for local police duty — says he wants to see Buncombe County served by law enforcement that’s inclusive and beneficial to all.
Miller says he’s running to promote unity between the community and the sheriff’s office. He wants to change the mindset of deputies “from that of warriors to that of guardians; from that of being intimidators to that of being protectors.”
One way to do that, Miller says, is to move away from an “us versus them” mentality to create a “community of we.”
In terms of policy, that means implementing modern policing techniques based on methodology found in President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Retired law enforcement officer Chris Winslow brings nearly 30 years of experience — most of it in Rutherford County — to his candidacy for sheriff. He has also spent 27 years as a volunteer firefighter with the Reems Creek Fire Department. He says he’s running to bring change to the sheriff’s office and how it works with the community.
Winslow points out his personal connection to the opioid epidemic. “My wife and I chose not to have kids in life, but we wound up raising two teenage boys,” he says, “because of their father getting addicted to pain pills through a doctor.”
Opioid addiction and abuse, along with the many legal, criminal and health implications of the opioid crisis facing the county and the nation, is the most pressing issue facing local law enforcement today, the candidates agree.
Beyond continuing to bring as many resources and ideas to bear on that problem as possible, the prospective sheriffs note a variety of issues they would address in the position.
Winslow highlights domestic violence survivors as a group whose interests could be better served. “Currently our sheriff’s office will go to a call, and they will tell the victim of domestic violence to go get a warrant. And what happens is the person that’s assaulted that individual will go to the magistrate’s office [first] and become the victim.”
Thus, victims of violence can end up being arrested for assaults they didn’t commit. To address the problem, patrol officers should facilitate arrest warrants, he says.
Winslow, Lance and Fisher all call for better coordination of services that help crime victims navigate the justice system.
Fisher also would like to build on the success of the Community Oriented Policing teams Duncan established. To increase the ability of the department’s specialist teams to address problems in different county neighborhoods, he would implement an ACE, or Alliance for Community Engagement, and assign a deputy to each community to monitor problems identified by the COPs teams.
Miller agrees that officers need to be more integrated into the communities they serve. “We have to figure out ways to get the deputy out of the car and into the neighborhood,” he says. “This is about relationship-building for me.” And building closer relationships between the Sheriff’s Department and the APD, he adds, will allow the two agencies to operate more collaboratively on problems that affect everyone.
Miller wants to take programs to support those being held in county correctional facilities to the next level by offering a job-training program to inmates.
Lance also has thoughts on the jail: “It’s been in turmoil for the last year and a half. You’ve had two deaths inside the detention facility. One of the deaths was investigated by the sheriff’s office. I think anytime that there’s an in-custody death, the SBI should be asked to come in and investigate it.”
According to Lance, four captains have been assigned to lead the facility in the last two years; one of those was terminated following a State Bureau of Investigation inquiry, he says.
Lance criticizes the sheriff’s office for not having a full-time forensic specialist. “I’ve talked to several people that’s had break-ins. I said, ‘Did they do prints?’ — ‘Well no, nobody came out [to] do prints,’” he explains. One of the changes he says he will implement is to ensure that every home break-in is checked for clues by forensic specialists. Often, he says, that type of crime can be connected by such evidence to other crime scenes.
A matter of trust
Trust in local law enforcement has been one of the hottest topics in Asheville and Buncombe County government and community discussions in recent weeks. After leaked video showed a white former Asheville police officer beating a black city resident, politicians and officials have jockeyed to present their solutions for rebuilding trust between residents and law enforcement.
After three of four Democratic county commissioners issued a statement calling for additional oversight, Duncan made haste to push back against the proposals, saying, “It usurps the authority of existing boards and elected officials to do the jobs that their citizens elected them to do.” At the same time, he also left room to support some of the proposals.
All the candidates express general agreement with Duncan’s stance. Speaking of the commissioners’ statement, Winslow says, “I think they just blindsided him.” At the same time, the candidates acknowledge the necessity for police agencies to cultivate and maintain the public’s trust.
Smart thinks communication is the key. “Because we know we work really hard in the sheriff’s office and our culture as to our contact with folks in the community is that we have positive contact as much as possible,” he says. Although department employees strive to be perfect, Smart continues, they must also own any mistakes they make and address any problems immediately and openly, since trust and support in the community are vital to law enforcement.
Reading the commissioner’s proposals felt a little shocking, Smart says. He regrets that the commissioners’ statement may have given the impression that there was reason to be concerned about inequitable policing by the Sheriff’s Department. “And we try very hard every day to not have that type of culture here within your sheriff’s office,” he says.
Having municipal officials dictate how law enforcement operates, says Lance, is a “dangerous thing.” And he sees it as unnecessary. “There’s not a group that’s more scrutinized than law enforcement,” he maintains. He says that attorneys, judges, state and federal bureaus of investigation, the media and even the U.S. Department of Justice already look at, evaluate and influence officer performance.
Some of the actions commissioners suggested would be difficult or impossible under existing law, Fisher says, but it’s still possible to rebuild trust. “One way that I think we can do that,” he says, “is we can implement diversity and inclusion among the command staff and the leadership of the sheriff’s office. People who live in the community really want to see people who look like them in a leadership role.” Folks from the LGBTQ, African-American and Hispanic communities should be made leaders, he says, noting “I think that will also help us when it comes to recruiting future deputies.”
Consistent with his priorities of collaboration and inclusion, Miller says he would have liked to see the commissioners and sheriff get together for a joint statement. More oversight should be on the table, he says, and he’d like to know what that would look like. Moving forward, he says he would like to train consistently and constantly on de-escalation and improve community engagement. “I would like to see what we do spread throughout other parts of the state,” he says.
Winslow also highlights the importance of ongoing training to combat bias and emphasize de-escalation.
Lance advocates tactical communication training. The most important part of de-escalation, he says, is de-escalating oneself. That’s where he believes the lack of judgment displayed by former Asheville Officer Chris Hickman in the leaked video began. “When you step out of that car, you leave your feelings in the car, you leave your biases in the car and you step out and do the job as a professional law enforcement officer,” Lance says.
Only one of the Democratic candidates will survive the primary and win the right to face off against Republican Shad Higgins and Libertarian Tracey “Phoenix” Debruhl. In countywide races, Democrats have the advantage with 63 percent more registered voters than Republicans. No non-Democrat has mustered more than 45 percent of the vote in a Buncombe-wide election since 2010. But Debruhl and Higgins both say they are taking on the challenge seriously.
Higgins owns an automotive shop in Weaverville and has completed some law enforcement coursework. The job of sheriff, he says, is mostly about managing a budget and people, which his experience as a small-business owner has given him. The sheriff’s office, he says, is “overspending and our budget is crazy.”
Debruhl, meanwhile, is running as an advocate for extreme change. He claims wrongdoing on behalf of the sheriff’s office, from a beating he says he received at the hands of deputies to alleged evidence tampering.
Debruhl shares his take on how the race is shaping up: “You’ve got five cops on the Democratic side that have been involved in corruption. You have one guy with no training and experience and you’ve got one U.S. Marine who’s been doing the job for them.”
For more information on this race and others, see Mountain Xpress’ 2018 primary voter guide.