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Jackson sheriff candidates vie for win in Republican primary

Brent McMahan (left) and Doug Farmer. Brent McMahan (left) and Doug Farmer.

Jackson County Sheriff Chip Hall may be running unopposed in the upcoming Democratic primary, but two Republican candidates are competing for the chance to challenge him in November. Doug Farmer, currently a detective for the Sylva Police Department, and Brent McMahan, a bailiff and patrol officer for the Swain County Sheriff’s Department, will face off during the May 8 Primary Election. 

For both men, school safety, combating drug trafficking, increasing road patrol coverage and engaging the community would be high priorities if elected to the office, but they differ in their evaluation of the current administration.

“This Sheriff’s Office has been too little, too late on prevention,” said McMahan. “It’s taken some type of incident to happen to react to make a policy.”

As examples, McMahan referenced the two suicides that took place in the Jackson County Jail shortly after Hall’s election and the Parkland school shooting and subsequent bomb scares in Jackson schools, saying that these events shouldn’t have had to take place for the sheriff’s office to hire a jail captain to manage the detention center and ask commissioners for more school safety funding. 

Farmer, on the other hand, was less willing to criticize Hall’s leadership, saying he has “no issues with the current administration” or any of its officers. 

“I’m not going to critique the current administration,” he said. “I’ll leave that up to the citizens of Jackson County. If they’re happy with that, who am I to judge the citizens of Jackson County? But I think I can bring something to the table to better serve that department.”

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McMahan and Farmer both feel that their respective sets of experience are best suited to making the needed improvements. 

“I’ve held supervisory roles. When I was in Iraq I helped train Iraqi police officers,” said Farmer. “We helped set up police departments, had to show them to how run police departments and what they had to do, techniques they need to know when dealing with the public. Experience is the big thing.”

Farmer, 54, has worked in law enforcement for 20 years, including 11 years with the Macon County Sheriff’s Department, six months with the Highlands Police Department, one year as an international police officer in Iraq and eight years with the Sylva Police Department. He ran for sheriff in 2014 as a Democrat, coming in third of six primary election candidates and pulling 11 percent of the vote compared to Hall’s 42 percent.

McMahan, 41, who has worked eight years in law enforcement, sees his diversity of experience as vital to his qualifications for the sheriff’s seat. 

“My opponent has not worked as a detention officer to the extent that I have,” said McMahan. “My opponent has not worked in the court system as a bailiff enforcing court orders. My opponent has not been a (school) resource officer. He doesn’t know what it’s like to be in a school with the children, how to interact with them.”


Fighting drugs

It’s no secret that drugs are a problem throughout the region, and both candidates have ideas as to how the sheriff’s department should go about fighting their spread. 

In Farmer’s view, getting more K-9s in the force would be an important step. Jackson County currently has two dogs for four shifts, he said, meaning that two shifts have no dogs at all. 

Farmer said he would focus on crime at home first rather than spending his energy on larger, regional stings. 

“I’m not a big fan of long, drawn out, two- and three-year campaigns trying to get trafficking levels on these guys and working people out of our county,” he said. “I want to curtail the drug problem as much as possible in Jackson County and then worry about the outside.”

Training for officers would be a key component of that strategy, Farmer said. For instance, he said, many officers are “scared to death” to write a search warrant, but “through training they can learn it’s not the big bad wolf they perceive it to be.” A well-placed search warrant can result in relief for an entire neighborhood, he said. 

McMahan said he’d develop partnerships to address the drug issue. For instance, he said, an improved working relationship with the Cherokee Indian Police Department should be a priority, as the Qualla Boundary lies partially within Jackson County. He’d look to restructure the department to create a squad whose sole purpose is combating drug movement. 

“As the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, we can greatly impact and help Cherokee with the flow of drugs that are coming through Jackson County into the reservation,” McMahan said. 

Community outreach would be a cornerstone of McMahan’s administration, he said, explaining that he would plan to hold a monthly town hall meeting with the location rotating through various Jackson County communities, giving citizens a chance to tell him their issues and observations related to crime and law enforcement. 

“That way the citizens can become my informants and tell me times that cars are coming in and people that don’t belong in the community,” McMahan said. 

Farmer said he’d like to develop community watch and community policing programs, and that he’d work hard to build relationships with his constituents, also mentioning the usefulness of town hall meetings in gathering input. 

“I’ve always prided myself on that as a deputy, being able to get out and talk to anybody, not just be a face in a patrol car but get out and talk to people,” he said. 


Boosting road patrols

Farmer and McMahan both see increased road patrols in Cashiers as a priority for the next term. Currently, both said, Jackson County has four patrol officers per shift, one of which covers Cashiers solo. It’s a large area for one person to patrol, they said, and the long distance down to Sylva poses a variety of issues. 

“One officer is at great risk if you’re a proactive officer trying to make arrests or trying to work any kind of drug interdiction,” said Farmer. “It’s unsafe at best.”

“I’ve been up there (as a patrolman). My backup was over 22 minutes away,” agreed McMahan. “It’s my fear you’re going to have an officer killed or seriously injured up there before really wanting to make a change on that.”

Farmer, who spent 11 years with the Macon County Sheriff’s Office, said that county, which is of similar size to Jackson, had six patrol officers per shift at the time he left in 2010. He said that four officers per shift to cover northern Jackson County would probably be adequate, with two officers covering the Cashiers area. However, increasing coverage would require commissioners to increase the department’s budget. 

Expanding coverage in the southern end of the county could go a long way toward pushing back against the influx of drugs into Jackson, said McMahan, explaining that people entering the county through Tuckaseigee and N.C. 281 are unlikely to encounter law enforcement as they cross the county line and descend the mountain. 

Farmer suggested that Jackson County also explore a recent state law allowing sheriff’s offices to enter into mutual aid agreements with private security companies. Such security officers could prove valuable in providing a timely helping hand in a bad situation, he said. 


Jailhouse management 

For McMahan, a pair of suicides at the Jackson County Detention Center in November 2014 and March 2015 raises real concerns about leadership in the sheriff’s office. Follow-up investigations determined that the jail didn’t follow detoxification and monitoring rules in place to prevent such tragedies from occurring, and both suicides took place after Hall’s election — though the 2014 death happened before he’d been officially sworn in and was still serving as chief deputy under former Sheriff Jimmy Ashe. 

McMahan, who has worked in and with the Swain County Detention Center for years, sees that record as unacceptable. 

“We house U.S. Marshall inmates, people awaiting murder trials,” McMahan said of the population in Swain County. “We house the worst of the worst, and we’ve operated without incident the whole time I’ve been up here.”

McMahan believes there’s more to be done to prevent such things from occurring in the future, and he’d also like to see greater weight given to rehabilitative services. 

“It’s one thing to arrest someone and put them in jail,” he said. “It’s another thing to rehabilitate them and reform them.”

Farmer believes that Hall has already addressed the issues that resulted in the 2014 and 2015 suicides. However, he said the jail does seem to be a bit short-shifted at times and could use some additional officers. 

“I can’t critique all of those until I get in there and see how each of those processes are done,” he said. “I’m sure there would be some changes.”


Keeping schools safe 

Both candidates see school safety as a high priority for a new administration. 

McMahan, whose resume includes 1.5 years as a school resource officer, said he would push for more officers in the schools. It’s important, he said, and not just in the case of an active shooter. 

“Right now the school teachers, the principal and the administration are having to enforce court orders, which is a duty of the sheriff’s office,” he said. “For example, a domestic violence protection order or a custody order.”

Having a law enforcement officer in the school would allow someone trained to handle such matters to deal with it, letting school personnel concentrate on what they do best. School officers also get a solid feel for what is going on in the community and may be able to address developing problems before they erupt, he said. 

Farmer agreed with the need to have an officer in every school, and said that in addition he’d focus on improved training for law enforcement, staff and students so that everybody knows how to respond in an active shooter situation. 

“You can take all the precautions in the world and try to stop something from happening, but you can’t foresee every avenue that somebody would try to do something,” he said. “The best we can do is prepare and continue to think outside the box so that hopefully, should a situation arise, we can resolve it quickly.”

K-9 searches in the schools should be part of the solution, Farmer said, and parents should be encouraged to teach gun safety to their kids. 

The county is in the process of implementing significant changes to school safety, with commissioners voting last month to fund enough additional school resource officers to give each school a dedicated officer. Commissioners also approved $400,000 for security cameras and monitors and another $27,000 for architectural work toward an estimated $741,000 of security improvements. Further increases in school safety spending are on the table during this year’s budget talks. 



Meet the candidates

The Republican primary election will feature two candidates for sheriff in Jackson County, with the May 8 winner facing incumbent Chip Hall in the November General Election

Brent McMahan

• Age: 41

• Community: Scotts Creek

• Current position: Bailiff, Swain County Sheriffs Department 

• Qualifications: Haywood Community College graduate with basic law enforcement training. Work experience includes eight years in law enforcement, including as a detention officer, school resource officer, road patrol officer civil, process officer and bailiff in Swain County and as a road patrol officer in Jackson County. 

• Reason to run: “I decided to run for sheriff due to the increasing problems in Jackson County, the increase in drug activity, the lack of protection in our school systems and the lack of leadership in that office when it comes to policies pertaining to the jail and civil processes.”

Doug Farmer

• Age: 54

• Community: Dillsboro

• Current position: Detective, Sylva Police Department 

• Qualifications: Advanced law enforcement certification and various other professional certifications. Twenty years of work experience includes experience as a detention officer, road patrol, sergeant and detective for the Macon County Sheriff’s Office, officer for the Highlands Police Department, assistant team leader for the International Police Liaison Service, and road sergeant and detective for the Sylva Police Department. 

• Reason to run: “I think I bring some things to the table, some fresh and new ideas that are needed. I started at the bottom as a detention officer and have worked my way up, so I know what it’s like to work from the bottom and come up, to know what you need from your higher-ups and what they expect from you.”

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