Incumbent sheriff challenged in Swain
Incumbent Republican Curtis Cochran is running for a fourth term as Swain County sheriff. While he’s never had an easy race, he said, this election cycle has been particularly brutal with mudslinging coming from all directions.
With no prior law enforcement experience before being elected for the first time in 2006, he’s had to defend his qualifications every four years. Despite a number of controversies during his tenure — escaped inmates, an SBI investigation into jailers using excessive force, and Cochran suing the county over his salary — it hasn’t stopped him from being re-elected when faced with a number of opponents.
Cochran had to defend himself once again this spring when a Swain County resident challenged his eligibility for office.
Jerry Lowery filed a candidate challenge against the sheriff claiming he had been dishonorably discharged from the military, making him guilty of a felony crime and therefore ineligible to serve as sheriff and carry a gun. The local board of elections dismissed the challenge and the state board of elections dismissed it again after Lowery filed an appeal. Lowery had hoped the challenge would compel Cochran to release his military discharge record, but that didn’t happen — Cochran’s attorney argued he didn’t have an official DD-214 form from the military because he didn’t serve 90 days.
Rocky Sampson said his desire to be of service to others is what has led him to run for sheriff in Swain County. When he was 12, his father — an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — organized a volunteer firefighter department in Cherokee, which sparked his interest in being a first responder. When he turned 18, he took EMT classes and became a member of the Cherokee Indian Rescue Squad.
“I’ve always been involved in helping people,” he said. “I was too young to go to Vietnam and too old when registration came back up so I guess I sort of felt left out and this is my way of being able to do something for others.”
Sampson has been critical of the current sheriff and is running on promises of operating the sheriff’s office in a more fair and professional manner — including more standardized procedures and practices for jail operations and more accountability for deputies and detention officers.
Sampson has accused Cochran of trying to get him fired from the Bryson City Police Department once he announced he’d be running against the sitting sheriff. Cochran denies that he asked Police Chief Greg Jones to fire Sampson, but he did suspend a mutual aid agreement between the sheriff’s office and the town because the department had Sampson on staff.
Cochran claimed he was aware of inappropriate conduct during Sampson’s employment in Clay County, but Sampson produced a resignation letter showing he had resigned from Clay due to family health issues that required him to be closer to home in Bryson City. Chief Jones said he called about Cochran’s claims, but Clay County Sheriff Vic Davis said it wasn’t true and Sampson was a good officer.
Talk briefly about your past experience and why you are the most qualified candidate.
Sampson: I have 40 years of law enforcement experience. I started right out of high school in communications. Since that time I have been in patrol positions, I have worked in administration as supervisors and managers. I’ve also had a vast background in training and experience in other fields of law enforcement such as arson investigation, undercover narcotics investigations, death investigations, sex crime investigations and many more. I feel that with these qualifications, I’m vastly aware of what’s going on in our communities and able to work with our officers to help them enforce the law to the point they can make our community better.
Cochran: I came into this position 12 years ago without any prior law enforcement experience. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure and the good fortune of the people of Swain County having enough trust and confidence in me to elect me three terms. In that 12 years I’ve gained experience in all kinds of crimes — I’m talking about hands-on experience — not sitting in a classroom listening to someone else’s experience. I’ve gained a lot of experiences that qualify me for being sheriff.
If elected, what are your main goals and how do you plan to accomplish them?
Sampson: My goals are to provide a more professional and more functionable sheriff’s department. I will do that in order to provide the citizens with the services they need and require to live a better life. I will first start with increasing the officers’ pay. I know it’s too far in the fiscal year to ask the county commissioners for pay raises but that’s something I can do in the future.
Until then I have talked to a couple of commissioners at this time about being able to reduce the sheriff’s salary by $20,000 — I’ll use that money to provide a small pay raise to start with until we can get commissioners to re-budget their salaries. If I can get better pay, that’s more retention, better officers and they’ll like doing their jobs better.
I’ll also have policies and procedures to guide these officers and they will follow the policies and procedures and be held accountable. We will get back into the communities and be patrolling up and down community streets and you’ll be aware of who the officers are in your community.
Cochran: One goal is the retention of officers both as a deputy and detention officers. The deputy pay is pretty much comparable with other counties for starting pay — our problem is after they reach step two of the (county) pay plan they’re kind of stuck unless they receive a promotion. The detention staff is terribly low paid — detention officers in Swain County start out at $25,000 a year and that’s ridiculously low for the job they do. They put their lives on the line just like a deputy does. The difference being a deputy usually deals with people one-on-one — with three detention officers working a shift and 94 people in jail right now — you can figure the odds. We need to increase pay not only to train our people but to retain them — other counties are paying more and are recruiting our people all the time.
As the opioid epidemic rages on and more people are being arrested for drug-related crimes, law enforcement has said “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem” — what are some possible solutions to these problems and what’s the sheriff’s role in implementing changes?
Sampson: With the opioid crisis what it is today, the sheriff’s department is going to have to be more versatile in working with other agencies to try to prevent the use of drugs. There are programs such as the Lazareth program for the collection of unwanted or unused drugs. Locally we have a community organization called Renew. In Cherokee we have Rez Hope. These organizations are trying to implement programs that would help people in need before they get into the judicial system. Should they end up in the judicial system, thus in my facilities as an inmate, there are programs we can run within the jail — AA or NA. Not only that, we can put them to work programs to teach them other skills and show them that they’re still part of our community. We can get them out as trustees and work within the communities.
Cochran: It’s a national problem and we’re fighting it every day to take as many of these drugs off the streets as we can. Our deputies are always out looking for drugs — we have a lot of checkpoints in Swain County and we seize a lot of drugs through these checkpoints and in essence probably save a lot of lives in the process. We’ve always had a NA and most of the time an AA program at the detention center. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find people who want to come in and that are qualified to come in — a lot of people want to come into the jail but don’t meet our policy standards. We’re researching a recovery program out of Franklin called the Recovery Church so we’ll probably have them come in.
Many people in Swain County have expressed their distrust in law enforcement because of local and national events. How would you work to restore trust in the community and ensure the sheriff’s staff is held accountable?
Sampson: What I intend to do is have a set of policies and procedures that are equal to the standards used in CALEA (The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies), which is a national organization for accreditations making law enforcement unified across the nation. If I use these policies and procedures and my officers follow them correctly, then they’ll be more professional, they’ll understand what their job is supposed to be. We’ve invested a lot of money in our employees — we don’t want to lose them — we want to train them, keep them there and make them happy in doing their jobs and make the citizens aware of what they’re doing. The sheriff’s department is there to help people — we’ll protect you but we’ll also serve you. There are a lot of community programs these officers can get out and get involved in. They will become part of the community. You’ll get to know them and trust them.
Cochran: We’ve always held our people accountable. We have charged, we have jailed deputies and detention staff because of their activity. We’ve taken them to court and they’ve been prosecuted. We hold ourselves accountable — we hold ourselves to a higher standard. We are no better than anybody on the street as far as the law is concerned. Mistrust with law enforcement is highly blown out of proportion. I do blame the media for most of this — they seem to make a mountain out of a molehill a lot of times. I want the people of Swain County to know they can trust us but I want the criminals to know there is something to be fearful of — it’s not the law officer but it’s the law.
What can be done improve jail operations?
Sampson: I would look at the overcrowded issues — we may have space not being utilized or we may need to look at expanding the jail in the future. Inmates say there are no programs available in the jail — I would allow religious services, outdoor recreation in the yard. I’d look at putting a second fence up to be a catch zone between the two fences to make more secure. They need to be able to go outside with the correct supervision. Fresh air is healthy and it would let them feel relaxed so when they come back inside they’re more ruly and compliant. With a little freedom comes more respect from them.
Cochran: We aren’t over capacity in the jail — we’re at 94 inmates right now. (The jail has 150 beds). When the jail was built, it was built to federal and state requirements with direct sunlight. People think the fenced-in area outside is a rec area but it’s not — it’s a requirement from the state for evacuation purposes. If I let people out to walk, there’s not enough staff to supervise that. I’m sure it would be beneficial if they could get outside, but if they go outside they’re going to walk and they can walk in the pods.
Do you think the current sheriff’s administration treats everyone equally and fairly?
Sampson: I’ve had many people come talk to me about how they’ve been mistreated — officers using excessive force and talking down to and belittling people. People say they’ve been over-charged, searched without probable cause. Of course I wasn’t there but I know there’s been a lot of searches and I can’t see that being needed — people being followed and surveilled. I’m going to review all these surveillances. Right now the sheriff’s office doesn’t have any cameras so I want to work on that. Car cameras are great and they look straight ahead but body cams show more.
Cochran: We can’t always treat everyone the same, but we do treat people fairly. For example, if someone is exceeding the speed limit because they’re trying to get to the hospital during an emergency, we’re going to do all we can to ensure they get there safely. But if someone is speeding just because they want to, we have to enforce the law. The bottom line with car cameras or body cameras is we can’t afford them. The actual cameras are cheap but it’s maintaining the server to hold all the videos that’s expensive.
Meet the candidates
Rocky Sampson (D)
• Age: 59
• Hometown: Cherokee
• Education: Graduated from Swain High School
• Professional experience: Currently works for Bryson City Police Department (though he is on unpaid administrative leave until after the election as is required through a town of Bryson City policy).
• Political experience: Ran for sheriff in 2014 but didn’t make it past the primary election.
Curtis Cochran (R)
• Age: 66
• Hometown: Swain County
• Education: Since being elected, Cochran has attended a sheriff leadership institute, is a member of the North Carolina Jail Administrators’ Association and has received certificates from North Carolina Justice Academy.
• Professional background: He worked for 22 years in underground construction building tunnels. In 1994, he went to work as the facilities manager for Swain County.
• Political background: Running for a fourth consecutive term as sheriff