Swain sheriff under fire from deep bench of challengersWritten by Bibeka Shrestha
There is, perhaps, no sheriff’s race as hotly contested as the one currently taking place in Swain County.
Sheriff Curtis Cochran’s volatile first term as sheriff has brought no shortage of issues — or candidates — to the Swain sheriff’s race this year.
Challengers were lining up and campaigning more than a year ago. The moment they’ve long awaited is now here.
Eight Democrats will battle it out during a primary this May, while Cochran will compete head-to-head with newcomer Wayne Dover for a spot on the Republican ticket.
Candidates spoke with the Smoky Mountain News on the myriad issues facing Swain’s sheriff office and on their vision for the next four years.
Among those topics: a suspected murderer’s escape from Swain County’s jail last year; Cochran’s ongoing lawsuit against Swain’s Democratic county commissioners for reducing his salary; a Swain detention officer purchasing a big-screen TV using the county’s credit card; and a newly built $10 million jail sitting half-empty.
All or nearly all candidates say they want to bring more professionalism and training to the Sheriff’s Office, combat a growing drug problem in the county, and rebuild a relationship with the community, the commissioners, and surrounding counties.
Cochran sued the county commissioners after they took away a long-established “meal deal” shortly after he was elected. For decades, Swain County commissioners paid the sheriff a flat rate to feed jail inmates and allowed him to pocket any surplus. The off-the-books subsidy bolstered the sheriff’s salary, which was otherwise the lowest of any sheriff in the state.
Other jurisdictions had already gotten rid of the corruption-prone policy, and Swain commissioners voted to follow in their footsteps two weeks after the 2006 election. Cochran filed a lawsuit claiming the county reduced his salary because he was a Republican, while commissioners and most of his predecessors were Democrats.
Cochran asked commissioners to increase his salary from $39,000 to $80,000. The lawsuit is ongoing, while Cochran continues to receive much lower than average pay. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office is struggling to cope with a reduction in its budget and layoffs after the recession hit.
Meanwhile, the sheriff and the commissioners have been at constant odds over the sheriff’s operating budget, staffing levels and salaries for deputies.
John Ensley (D) would like to see a salary increase for deputies as well as the sheriff funded by a fee charged to criminals. As the owner of small business that’s still prospering amid a recession, Ensley said he’d do more with less at the Sheriff’s Office.
Steve Ford (D) said he’d work hard to justify every item in his budget to commissioners, backing them up with statistics if he had to. “You’ve got to justify your existence... [Cochran’s] lack of ability to prove to the commissioners the need for his budget is what created his cuts.”
Ford said the meal deal was borderline illegal. He’s in favor of having an increased salary for the sheriff, with a starting and ending income point, based on experience.
David Thomas (D) said since the county is often paying to train officers, it should also offer them enough pay to keep them working in Swain. “That’ll save the county money in the long run.” Thomas also supports a salary increase for the sheriff. He suggests using the money from the Road to Nowhere settlement to pay for raises.
Julius Taylor (D) said he has experience securing grant money for the Cherokee police. In a 15-minute presentation to the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security he was able to score $180,000.
Steve Buchanan (D) said he’s taken a look at the sheriff’s budget and could not target any areas to cut. He said he’d have to see a further breakdown of actual spending to make a decision. Buchanan said the budget is a joint effort and that he’d work with the commissioners to come up with the best solution for all.
Chuck Clifton (D) said he’d like to see salaries brought up to where they should be. Clifton has heard of deputies whose families are eligible for food stamps. He says he will support the county in actively pursuing a commercial tax base for the county. “Without a tax base, we’re not going to be able to increase anything.”
Mitchell Jenkins (D) said the commissioners’ decision to cut the meal deal just had bad timing, and that they should not have jerked the rug out after Cochran took office. “They made it look political to the public.”
Considering all the duties that the sheriff carries out, Jenkins agrees that the sheriff should get paid more.
Jenkins said he’d work within the budget that is made available by commissioners.
Wayne Dover (R) said the commissioners’ timing was off, but Curtis knew what his salary would be before running. Dover said deputies need a raise before the sheriff because Swain is unable to compete with the salaries offered in Jackson County and Cherokee.
Dover said he’d apply for every grant that’s available, and would hire a full-time grant writer in-house to support the effort.
Curtis Cochran (R) would not comment on the ongoing lawsuit or the meal deal. Cochran said his department is always on the lookout for grants. He added that he disagreed with the commissioners cutting three deputies and a secretary from his department in last year’s budget.
“I feel that was very unfair for the people of Swain County, that their safety could be jeopardized by not having enough people on patrol.”
Curtis said he’s asked for the positions to be filled again in this year’s budget. Cochran pointed out that he’s had experience working on Swain County budgets since 1994.
MISMANAGEMENT OR ROUGH LUCK?
No matter how well they get along with Sheriff Cochran, candidates claim that Cochran lacks the law enforcement experience to serve as Swain County’s sheriff. When Cochran was elected in 2006, he had no previous law enforcement experience.
During Cochran’s first term in office, a female jailer helped a man charged with murder in a double homicide escape from the Swain County jail. Cochran was allegedly warned by employees of a cozy relationship developing between the jailer and inmate. In another incident, an inmate escaped from a holding room in the Swain County courthouse. The search ended with a high-speed chase down U.S. 74, during which Cochran shot at the tires of a getaway van the inmate had stolen.
Also during his term, a detention officer used the county’s Sam’s Club card to purchase a big-screen TV. The officer was later fired.
John Ensley (D) says he’s been trained to work in a correctional facility and has experience on the job. “I know what red flags to watch for, and how to manage issues.”
To prevent more escapes, Steve Ford (D) plans to review hiring practices, look at his employees’ job performance, and make sure there’s standard operating procedures in place. In the case of the big screen TV, Ford said he would have charged the employee with theft. “Did they use a credit card that wasn’t theirs? Why weren’t they charged? Fired is far from being charged.” Ford said Cochran has done the best he can do for a man with no prior law enforcement experience.
David Thomas (D) said he would not have female jailers working with male inmates and vice versa. “I don’t think that’s right.” Thomas said he never saw mishandling of county credit cards when he worked at the jail. “Curtis didn’t have no experience when he went in, I think that hurt him.”
Julius Taylor (D) said the escapes and credit card use show that Cochran did not have the right people in certain positions. Taylor said he would be a better supervisor if elected and make sure there is an official policy and procedure for the jail.
Taylor pointed out that Cochran had to learn from scratch, and even though he now has three years of experience in law enforcement, it doesn’t compare to Taylor’s 16 years. “Not saying he’s a bad person, he’s had three years of rough luck with it.”
Steve Buchanan (D) said the county should hire an experienced sheriff to stop crime in its tracks.
Buchanan claims he knows exactly what needs to be changed at the jail since he worked as a jailer there for seven months. He would not elaborate, however, because he had promised Cochran, his former boss, to not reveal problems in the jail during his campaign.
Buchanan believes he was unfairly fired from his night shift at the jail after he decided to run for sheriff. According to Buchanan, the county cited the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity, as justification for the firing. However, Buchanan was not a federal employee.
Chuck Clifton (D) said escape was caused by lack of education and mismanagement. “Sheriff Cochran has minimal law enforcement experience, none when he was elected, and that shows.” Clifton said he would use his education and experience to prevent similar incidents in the future.
Mitchell Jenkins’ (D) only comment on the issue was that in his view, Cochran has not established a good working relationship with his employees and with the community. “I don’t feel like people confide in him the way I’d want them to me.”
Wayne Dover (R) said the escapes resulted from a failure to listen to employees who warned Cochran about the jailer’s inappropriate relationship with the inmate she helped escape. “It’s not really, per say, his fault. It is still his responsibility.”
Curtis Cochran (R) said the jail escapes had nothing to do with him being sheriff. “If you got a person on the inside that’s going to help somebody escape, they’re going to do it.” Curtis said the jailer who helped the prisoner escape went through a background check and received state certification as a detention officer. “You’d have to have a crystal ball, I guess, to see what people are going to do, and I just don’t have one. And neither do the other candidates.”
Swain County opened its 109-bed jail aiming to receive overflow prisoners from other counties, raking in revenues that would help pay for the $10 million facility. Instead, surrounding counties built their own new jails, leaving Swain’s jail half-empty on most nights.
Cherokee prisoners make up the vast majority of out-of-county inmates helping to fill the jail and offset costs, but the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians now plan on building its own jail as well. Swain’s jail is 75 percent larger than what it currently needs for its own inmates.
Cochran recently signed a deal that will bring back federal prisoners from the U.S. Marshal Service, which pulled out from Swain’s crumbling old jail because it lacked a fire sprinkler system. Still, that agreement has failed to bring in a significant flow of inmates, while the jail continues to cost taxpayers $610,000 every year.
John Ensley (D) denies that the jail was overbuilt since it will accommodate future growth in the region. Ensley said he’ll take part in an aggressive outreach effort to state, federal and local agencies. A good rapport will help lure prisoners to Swain’s jail in the future. “These other counties, they may have not built their jail as big as ours. Eventually, they’re going to reach capacity...I think we’ve got it, we’ve got to be positive about it.”
Steve Ford (D) says the brand new jail should pay for itself instead of costing taxpayers money. He supports charging those who are arrested a book fee and a $5 fee per day to offset the cost of their housing.
David Thomas (D) said he’d work with everyone in the community and county government to figure out a solution for the jail. “I think you’ll get more prisoners if you’re in the good grace of your surrounding counties that don’t have their own jail.”
Julius Taylor (D) said having a customer service attitude will greatly help the jail. Taylor said instead of reserving bed space for state or federal prisoners, he’d have a first-come, first-served approach.
Taylor, who has worked with the Cherokee police department for almost 16 years, said he’d also work aggressively to change Cherokee’s mind about building its own jail. “We run the jail, let us do what we’ve done for hundreds of years.”
Steve Buchanan (D) said he’s talked to Graham County’s sheriff, who has expressed interest in shutting down the antiquated jail there. According to Buchanan’s research, if two counties work together to operate one jail, it is considered a regional jail and may receive more federal funding. Buchanan insists that Swain’s commissioners would retain control over the jail if the arrangement comes to fruition. Graham currently sends its prisoners to the new jail in Cherokee County.
Chuck Clifton (D) said he’d try to work with federal agencies to entice prisoners to Swain’s jail. “We have a state of the art jail...There is no reason why we cannot entice or encourage outside agencies to house their prisoners in our jail.”
Mitchell Jenkins (D) said he needs to further study the jail to come up with the solution. Jenkins plans to sit down with commissioners to work on the problem. He said the county government should have surveyed surrounding counties about their plans to build jails. “If they had been aware of the situation, I feel like they went overboard with the size of the jail that was established. I feel like they got a bigger facility than they’re gonna need.”
Wayne Dover (R) said he’d rather have a jail too big than not big enough. He says if there are stiffer penalties, with more jail time, for those who are charged with crimes, the jail will pay for itself. Dover said he’s worried about Cherokee’s plans for a jail. “Steps need to be taken now.”
Curtis Cochran (R) said all surrounding counties except for Graham County now have their own jails. If the tribe builds its own jail, Cochran said the county will soon be at the mercy of the U.S. Marshal Service for inmates. Cochran pointed out that he inherited the jail problem when he took office.