Retiring Buncombe Sheriff Van Duncan reflects on his tenure, the state of policing

LAW MAN: After 12 years as Buncombe County’s sheriff, Van Duncan is set to retire after
the election of his successor in November. Photo by Able Allen
LAW MAN: After 12 years as Buncombe County’s sheriff, Van Duncan is set to retire after the election of his successor in November. Photo by Able Allen

Sheriff Jack Van Duncan has experienced some difficult times in local law enforcement.

Hired by former Sheriff Bobby Medford in 2000, Duncan would later learn that his boss was engaging in a long list of shady and illegal activities, including abusing his power to protect video poker operations and falsifying evidence in the Walter Bowman murder case — an action that eventually cost the county $5.4 million. Medford is currently serving a 15-year sentence for extortion and corruption in federal prison.

But even considering the challenges of dealing with the aftermath of Medford’s tenure, today’s police face an external environment that’s the toughest he’s seen in 30 years on the job, Duncan says. Close public scrutiny of law enforcement officers around issues of race and the use of force has made entering the profession less appealing to qualified candidates. And operating under a cloud of community distrust complicates the challenge of performing a difficult job safely, he says.

“And I hope it works to correction. I hope so. It worries me,” Duncan muses. “All that pressure is kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he warns. “‘The police are bad, the police are bad.’ And if we keep going with that narrative, police are going to be bad.”

As Duncan prepares to leave the post he’s held for the past 12 years, he spoke with Xpress to reflect on the current state of policing, his time in office and the legacy he’ll leave behind.

A hard time to police

Since the March 2 publication of a leaked body camera video showing former Asheville Police Officer Chris Hickman, who is white, beating resident Johnnie Jermaine Rush, who is African-American, community outcry against the disparate treatment of white and black residents by police has continued to feed  a dynamic that has been worrying Duncan for some time.

The sheriff says he can understand the level of concern over what he calls a “horrible incident” and seconds Asheville Chief Tammy Hooper’s public assessment that Hickman’s behavior during the interaction with Rush was bad from start to finish. Beyond that, Duncan declines to comment on the video, saying he doesn’t have access to all the facts and information about the investigation that’s underway.

Speaking for his own agency, however, he says, “We’re very aware, because of the function we perform for the community, it is worse when somebody in our profession engages in behavior that is not correct in an excessive use of force, because we’re there to protect the community. So it can’t be tolerated. It shouldn’t be tolerated.” At the same time, he says, the widespread backlash condemning police can be disheartening when it’s based on the actions of a few. When an officer makes a wrong action, it’s not a “fair representation of everybody that works in this profession.” With other professions, “We’re not as quick to label the whole profession that way like sometimes happens with law enforcement right now,” Duncan says.

For policing to remain an attractive career for people who want to have a positive impact, he says, the public must leave room for evaluation when a potential problem arises. “As we move forward, the community has to look at that vital function of law enforcement and occasionally give them a little benefit of the doubt and be patient and wait till the facts are in and wait for the the legal process to kind of work through.”

Well-earned rest

After being elected three times — with a greater percentage of the vote in each successive election — Duncan announced in April 2017 that he wouldn’t seek a fourth term.

Along with a desire to spend more time with his family, Duncan says his health contributed to his decision to retire. Not long after he took office in 2006, the sheriff was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. Fortunately for Duncan, the symptoms have been manageable.

“For some reason, God’s kept me here and kept me healthy and kept me engaged. And my MS has caused me very little issues,” Duncan reflects. Still, the stress of the job and the difficulty of taking time away to recuperate in case of health setbacks convinced the 53-year-old sheriff not to push his luck.

By most measures, Duncan will leave the department in better shape than he found it. For his part, the lawman mostly lets the numbers speak for themselves. He refers to statistics detailing statewide crime rates broken down by crime type and county.

In 2006, the year Duncan was elected, the indexed crime rate in Buncombe County, which includes property crime and violent crimes per 100,000 persons, was 2,935. Ten years later, it had fallen 32.6 percent to 1,977. That means in the midst of a population boom (which can often drive crime rates up), the department kept pace with and even exceeded the steep decline of the state’s crime rates (32.2 percent by the same metrics, over the same period).

Meanwhile, the jurisdiction served by the Asheville Police Department — which has seen the highest proportion of the county’s growth — has experienced a 7 percent increase in crime by the same metrics.

The calling

Like many who make their careers in public safety, Duncan says he felt called to a life in service to the community.

Duncan relates a story about a run-in with Mitchell County cops when he was 16 as one of his inspirations for a better approach to policing. The young Van drove through an intersection, not realizing police and fire vehicles were bearing down on the crossing.

“I didn’t feel like I had done anything wrong,” he recalls. “I didn’t react and deal with a situation where a law enforcement officer pulled up into an intersection and there were fire trucks coming.” Duncan says he continued driving because he didn’t realize the emergency traffic needed the right of way. He was charged with not stopping for emergency lights and sirens and went to court for it.

Although the case was dismissed, Duncan says the experience gave him a different perspective on how officers should interact with the community. “The gist of that story was that I just kind of felt like that could be done better and that could be done differently,” he says, “and how important that role is to the community and how important it is for it to be done correctly.”

With his career objective determined, the young officer set his sights on Buncombe County as the local law enforcement organization offering the best opportunities and pay. After stints with the Asheville and Weaverville police departments, as well as The Biltmore Co., he was hired by Medford in 2000.

Sour past

When asked to discuss the messes he may have had to clean up after defeating Medford in 2006 and succeeding him as sheriff, Duncan has long remained tight-lipped.

But he is willing to shed some light on what it was like to work in a department with a corrupt leader.

“Working under Bobby Medford was a learning experience,” Duncan says, “You know, I hate to dredge up the past. But it was a horrible time for me and a lot of other folks who were working at the sheriff’s office that really just wanted to come in and do a good professional job, serve the people of the county and feel like at the end of the day, if he did that, everything would be OK.”

Beyond the overt criminal goings-on of his predecessor’s operation, Medford’s office didn’t prioritize officer development, Duncan says. “Quite frankly, there was a lack of training for folks, and I was one of those people,” he reveals. As a detective working major cases including homicides, Duncan says, “I’d had a lot of training to be a law enforcement officer, but when you move into that investigative role, it’s just a different responsibility and a different skill set.”

Duncan sought classes outside the office, since resources weren’t available through the job.

Today, that approach wouldn’t work for long, according to Duncan. “The job has changed so much that, I think if somebody tried to do business that way, it would be an immediate failure. I think back in those days the expectation wasn’t as high and the spotlight wasn’t as intense,” he says.

Even with the best training, “…it’s still a tough job where mistakes can be made,” Duncan notes.

Though he acknowledges Medford’s many shortcomings, Duncan doesn’t seem to take pleasure in highlighting his predecessor’s misdeeds. In fact, he gives Medford credit for the better aspects of his management.

When Duncan’s close friend and colleague Jeff Hewitt was shot and killed in the line of duty while serving involuntary commitment papers in 2004, Medford “did as good as with that as he possibly could have,” Duncan says.

Transfer of power

In the early 2000s, Duncan says, he was approached to run for sheriff, but he couldn’t see himself pursuing political office. Then, in 2004, he was fired from the job he loved. Speculation was rife that Medford may have seen Duncan as a threat. Whatever the motivation for Duncan’s firing, he defeated the corrupt sheriff at the polls two years later.

After three terms of Medford, the depth of the department’s problems slowly came to light. The evidence room was a morass of missing guns, illegal drugs and money. Complicit department personnel were under investigation. As Xpress reported in 2008, at a pretrial hearing Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Edwards referred to Medford as “the head of the snake” and declared that the “de-Baathification” of law enforcement around the region — including the Buncombe County sheriff’s office — wasn’t finished.

Yet only a few deputies went down with the former sheriff. Duncan was left to manage the department and the employees he inherited. Most of them, he says, were ready to rise to the higher standard he would set.

Meeting a law enforcement operation’s obligations to ensure public safety and keep order requires a large team, Duncan explains. When he took office, the department had close to 250 full-time employees. Simply cleaning house wasn’t an option.

As the state and federal bureaus of investigation moved into a full-blown examination of Medford’s crimes, Duncan says he gave investigators total access and support throughout the process of bringing charges.

The majority of department employees, Duncan says, were “hoping and praying” that they’d find themselves working for a professional organization on the far side of the scandal.

So far as Duncan knows, Buncombe County didn’t retain any employees who had engaged in criminal behavior. But some who kept their jobs had perhaps been “too much with that [Medford] culture,” the sheriff says. “We gave a lot of benefit of the doubt but we made the expectations very clear, and very few people didn’t live up to it.

“When we came in, we had to make some assessment of people who were still in the office,” says Duncan of his start with his leadership team. According to records obtained from Buncombe County Human Resources, in the five months leading up to the 2006 election, only 15 sheriff’s office employees resigned; one was fired.

On Dec. 1, 2006, the day Duncan assumed office, 10 department employees who had been there since the 1980s and ‘90s retired. Another 19 resigned. They were followed by four more resignations that month and one involuntary termination. Over the next year and a half, 81 additional Sheriff’s Department personnel departed — 65 resigned, nine retired and seven were terminated involuntarily.

Duncan says there were around 30 employees “that we didn’t retain their employment” over the course of the transition period. “That’s the part of my job that I despise the most,” he notes. “Even when the right thing was you had to end somebody’s employment … or you couldn’t keep them when you start with a new administration — I think you know all the issues around the old one.”

In the end, Duncan says the process of transforming the department made for satisfying work. “It’s amazing when people working in a positive environment [are] able to do, what they are able to produce, and that was really good time. It was a hard time but it was a good time for the sheriff’s office. And we just kept moving forward.”

Leading the way

COMMUNITY POLICING: Duncan has supported programs like Project Lighten Up, a summer educational program for low-income and minority youths which aims to combat summer learning loss. The Law Enforcement Career Day introduces young people to police and some of their equipment. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department
COMMUNITY POLICING: Duncan has supported programs like Project Lighten Up, a summer
educational program for low-income and minority youths which aims to combat summer
learning loss. The Law Enforcement Career Day introduces young people to police and
some of their equipment. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department

Working under Medford, Duncan says, provided him with plenty of lessons in leadership — mostly what not to do. Good leadership, he notes, is “really not rocket science, but it wasn’t a whole lot of what I saw go on up here in those days.”

Duncan boils it down to a few elements, saying, “You just have to be pretty open, have some really clearly definable goals; encourage your folks, train them and hold them accountable to those things and be reasonable with them.

“As my first chief deputy, Don Revis, said, ‘There’s mistakes of the heart and mistakes of the mind,’” Duncan recalls. Mistakes of the mind are deficiencies in training or knowledge that can be corrected through education. Mistakes of the heart — that is, deeply held beliefs and impulses — are a different matter, Duncan says, noting, “those things were dealt with pretty swiftly.”

Since Duncan took office, the total department size has increased to nearly 400 full-time employees, including a well-regarded team of school resource officers. “We do our On Track [Leadership] Program in Buncombe County schools. It’s been a tremendously successful thing for us,” he says, pointing out that one school resource officer was recently named the top school cop in North Carolina.

Having grown the office, Duncan is still in no hurry to throw any babies out with bathwater when it comes to his staff. “Less and less people want to do this job anymore. So we’re having to really get back to investing in employees and training them through the rough spots as best we can,” he says.

Crime and punishment

The department emphasizes working with partners in the justice system to implement programs like the Drug Treatment Court or Veterans Treatment Court for those who need a second chance.

But Duncan also cautions against avoiding prison sentences at all costs. He points to Mecklenburg County, where violent crime numbers have risen in recent years, as an example of an area that’s chosen to measure success by “how quick they can empty the jail.”

Lest the pendulum swing too far toward concern over the victimization of people facing prison, Duncan says he worries about forgetting the victims of crimes. “Being a responsible public servant, you don’t want to put these people where you know they’re going to go right back out and continue to generate more victims. And that’s where I’m having a little bit of problem philosophically with some of the pressures that are put on law enforcement right now.”

Jail time, Duncan says, can serve a diversionary purpose. “Sometimes when you go to drug court and you see those graduations,” he notes, “what you hear from them is … if there wasn’t the accountability piece hanging over their head they would have never engaged in the [treatment steps] that got them to where they were.

“No matter how tough and harsh the criminal justice system can be,” Duncan says, a recent drug court graduation ceremony reminded him, “it’s nothing compared to somebody that’s dealing with addiction everyday. That life in itself is even harsher than the criminal justice system can be.”

Mental health problems have always posed a challenge for law enforcement, the sheriff says, but reductions in state funding for treatment have led to a situation in which jails serve as “the catch basin for folks who have mental health issues.” Duncan reflects proudly on his agency’s efforts to collaborate with area mental health and substance abuse treatment providers to care for those in custody.

Peace of mind

“We’re supposed to be the experts in how to do the law enforcement piece, but the community by all means should have every expectation to direct us towards what they think the problems are,” says Duncan.

The sheriff says he has relied on the community to direct the priorities of the department. At the same time, the onus falls on policing organizations to create opportunities to build relationships.

To foster the community’s trust and encourage citizens to communicate freely with the sheriff’s office, the department engages in outreach efforts, including posting on social media, attending community meetings and building relationships with individual community members.

“It’s not just about the arresting,” Duncan says, “it’s about the community being involved and understanding what’s going on and having a good line of communication with the sheriff’s office.”

The county’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) teams, Duncan notes, was recognized by the National Association of Counties in 2014. And listening to the community through that program has informed Duncan’s priorities as sheriff. After hearing that victims of home robberies have a hard time feeling safe in their homes long after the break-in, Duncan focused on reducing that category of crime.

“House B and Es [breaking and entering robberies] tear people out of frame,” explains the sheriff. “If they get their car broken into, they’re mad and upset. If they get their house broken into, [it affects] their sense of safety and they feel violated; it’s just a totally different reaction from folks.”

Data indicate that focusing resources on home robberies has paid off. While vehicle larceny rates have fluctuated over the past few years, residential robberies have steadily declined from 649 cases in 2013 to 337 in 2017. And the results people see in less life-shattering crime likely pay dividends in the form of appreciation of the office.

With over 70 percent of the vote the last time he ran, there’s no doubting Duncan’s popularity. When he’s asked what gains him that level of community support, he says it has to do with living up to the expectation that the community has around professionalism and being available to the community, giving credit to his staff.

Buncombe County Capt. Randy Sorrels has a different answer he wants to offer, given the humility of his boss’s response. “The reason he’s Mr. 70 percent is: He’s relentless, he’s honest, authentic, he’s genuine and he’s built more relationships face-to-face in this county than any sheriff or politician known to anybody. … Sure, we all work hard and try to do a good job, but he sets the standard. He walks the walk and demonstrates the behavior he expects all of us to adhere to.”

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About Able Allen
Able studied political science and history at Warren Wilson College. He enjoys travel, dance, games, theater, blacksmithing and the great outdoors. Follow me @AbleLAllen

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15 thoughts on “Retiring Buncombe Sheriff Van Duncan reflects on his tenure, the state of policing

  1. Richard B.

    Mr. Allen excellently portrays why Sheriff Duncan has received over 70 % of the vote when he last ran for office. I do not know Mr. Duncan’s party affiliation, however I do believe that three of the Democratic Buncombe County commissioners do know. They want funding for use-of-force training, a human rights commission and an independent team to review body camera footage.

    Perhaps some of their ideas are good. However, to not approach the Department and the Sheriff to be part of the process is not only an obvious political ploy, meant to impress a very liberal segment of the county population, it is below amateurish and stupid. It demeans the Sheriff and all of the Department. It ignores common sensibilities when dealing with major issues and ignoring the stakeholders. It intends to demean and to grab votes without shame or purpose.

    Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan said the commissioners used the beating (Mr. Rush, by APD Officer Hickman) “to drive a very anti-law enforcement agenda” and called the statement a slap in the face. He is being kind.

    When I go to the polls next time these Commissioners are up for re-election, this ill-advised and unthinking behavior will be top of mind.

    • Enlightened Enigma

      oh, they are ALL democrackkks, Whitesides, Jasmine and Frosty….Van Duncan too, but I bet he voted for Trump! Duncan’s continued support of the shady, sketchy, (corrupt?) NC Sheriffs Association
      is his problem. NC Sheriffs Association has been investigated by WRAL and various others in Rawleigh, for all their sketchiness….the top dog running that outfit lives in a $2 MILLION home in North Hills Rawleigh…they are a group to watch. I urge ALL to avoid contributions to the NC Sheriffs Association!

      Ask all new Sheriff candidates if and / or WHY they would continue to support the UNnecessary club known as the ‘NC Sheriffs Association…??? We need a sheriff who understands this problem in NC.

      Also remember to ask each one if they are an Oathkeeper and will they expect their deputies to take the oath to protect the people, not the government in times of turmoil …

      • luther blissett

        “Also remember to ask each one if they are an Oathkeeper”

        And if so, give them a wide berth, because that’s even more crackpot than Bircher nonsense.

  2. don

    Duncan’s slap in the face statement is reprehensible unfortunately… time for more not less independent oversight of the APD and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s department…. no matter how painful that might be for all involved.

    • Big Al

      For oversight to be “independent” does NOT mean to be disrespectfully DISMISSIVE of the Sherriff’s Department’s input and experience.

      I too will remember this moment when Whitesides, Frost and Beach-Ferrara come up for re-election.

      • don

        And don’t forget to vote again for your man TheRump as well lol ;)

        • Big Al

          I voted for Clinton despite the “R” on my now tarnished voter ID card. Even if I were a Democrat, I would vote against “my” peeps when they disrespect law enforcement for purely political reasons.

          • luther blissett

            Whether we like it or not, the county sheriff is elected and has an independent mandate, unlike the city’s chief of police. Although county commissioners set the sheriff’s salary and can appoint a replacement if the incumbent resigns, they don’t have the power of removal. That makes it a strange office that is assumed to be self-policing: any kind of independent oversight or accountability is optional and has to be negotiated outside of statutory frameworks, which is part of how we got Bobby Medford. (Let’s set aside the revisionist nonsense that sheriffs are some kind of ancient fundamental guarantor of rights.)

            I think Sheriff Duncan has done a good job, especially on issues like drug offenses, but the law-enforcement responsibilities and priorities of the sheriff’s department versus those of municipal and institutional PDs are always going to expose the city/county divide, as is the districting of the county commission.

    • Richard B.

      For clarification Don, are you stating that the Sheriff’s response to the Commissioners is reprehensible?
      You do understand that their behavior is considered to be grossly unprofessional in any managerial or organizational setting, do you not?

      This is about process, civility, and professionalism, – not politics.

      • don

        Yes…. in a word. And no, their “behavior” isn’t in question here… it was their suggestions that brought on the Sheriff’s ire. If the Sheriff had stated that the Commissioner’s plan was ill-conceived (or worse) that would have been fine. His “slap in the face” retort is hardly professional and, well, smacks of entitlement…. which is the root of problem here of course. (and it’s all politics my friend) Oh, and try telling someone their suggestions are a slap in a face in a managerial or organizational meeting/setting (other than the Oval office lol) and see how well received that is.

  3. Jason

    Van’s been as good as they’re going to come… sadly

    Let’s not forget our prior Sheriff’s still in prison

  4. Reginald LeDeaux

    And why doesn’t the Sherriff discuss his receiving a large retention bonus while serving in an elected office? Immoral or illegal? Or both?

    • Able Allen

      Hi Reginald,
      Thanks for the question. I actually did talk to the sheriff at length about this and I contacted Buncombe County HR. I can’t find any evidence that there was anything at all illegal about the retention bonus as it was in line with the policy that applies to all full time Buncombe employees which he has been for the better part of two decades(both elected and hired). As for moral, I guess you’ll have to decide for yourself. He was entitled to it and there is some speculation that Greene was handing these out as cover for her taking her own. It does feel weird to some of the people I talk to that a retention bonus was given to somebody elected, but it is also the case that the retention only was stipulated through the end of this term, so it didn’t hinge on an election and there was nothing else stopping him from retiring mid-term, not that there’s any indication that he was considering it.

      Here’s a sample of what Duncan had to say about it: “I’ve worked as a Buncombe County employee for 20-plus years and then had other time in the local government retirement system and the state system working for the Justice Academy and all that. So, you know I don’t know that I should be penalized because the last 12 years has been as elected time… I don’t know anybody that would not want what policy says they’re entitled to and what they’ve worked the time to earn and secure…the retirement package I’ve got is no different than the 170 people who have received it before me. And there are still some who are set to go on their retirement plan.” He also says that the way the bonus was paid out made him take an extra hit tax-wise and that agreeing to retire without running again also saved taxpayers money because if he had run for reelection and served five months of 2019, he would be eligible for even more retirement money from the state (although he says he wouldn’t have done this anyway).

      We didn’t include this part of the interview for space since there was nothing particularly revealing about what he said.

      • luther blissett

        Thanks, Able. The weirdness of the sheriff’s position — elected with an independent mandate but technically a county employee — creates situations like this, especially when you have a county manager gone rogue.

  5. luther blissett

    “Natural rights” are artificial rights conjured up by a particular political commonwealth and given a made-up backstory. The Birchers, III%ers, Sovereign Citizens, Oathkeepers etc. have their own fantasy version.

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