Jackson sheriff faces challenge for second term
When former Sheriff Jimmy Ashe decided not to run for re-election in 2014, a field of six Democrats and three Republicans signed up for the race to replace him, including Chip Hall and Doug Farmer.
Four years later, Hall is coming to the end of his first term as sheriff, and Farmer, a detective with the Sylva Police Department, is hoping to overtake him in his bid for re-election. In 2014, both men ran as Democrats; this time around, Farmer is running as a Republican, which he said is the party that more closely aligns with his conservative beliefs.
If re-elected, Hall would like to enhance the criminal investigation division through improved technology and training, improve school safety, increase programs available to detention center inmates and determine strategies to reduce recidivism.
Farmer said he would look to win tougher sentences for drug traffickers, improve patrol coverage in Cashiers, improve school safety and concentrate on proactively responding to citizen tips and complaints.
The winner will be sworn in for a four-year term this December, overseeing a large department that — between sheriff operations, jailhouse expenses and grants — is currently operating under a budget of $6.8 million.
As sheriff, how would you lead the department and community?
The issue: From budgeting to strategizing to overseeing departmental operations, the sheriff has a full plate. Leadership skills are key to the job, as is interacting with the community outside office walls.
Farmer: Farmer would plan to be active and present in the community as sheriff, pitching in on enforcement when needed and holding town hall meetings to hear what citizens are concerned about.
“As hard as that is sometimes, you’ve got to sit there and listen to it and try to come to a solution,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re going to do it is if you have a dialogue with the general public.”
Farmer said he’d ensure that deputies are first in line for new cars and other equipment, administrators second, and that he’d plan to evaluate the rank structure to ensure it’s not “top-heavy” with unnecessary or overpaid positions.
Hall: People expect their sheriff to be a present leader in the community and to hold staff and deputies accountable at work, Hall said.
“Professionalism starts at the top,” he said. “I set the standard and they follow along with the standards set.”
He believes Jackson County has “great” policies and procedures in place already and referenced a community outreach program he instituted upon taking office. Each day they’re on shift, deputies are required to visit with five citizens, patrol five secondary roads and visit five community properties, logging each. While he doesn’t keep a daily log himself, Hall said, those types of interactions are “pretty much what I’ve done for 30 years, and it served me well throughout my career.”
How would you combat the opioid epidemic in Jackson County?
The issue: The opioid epidemic is a problem nationwide, and Jackson County is no exception. From stopping traffickers to arresting dealers to dealing with addicts and the crimes they often commit in an attempt to feed their habit, law enforcement deals with the problem on multiple levels.
Hall: Hall is proud of the fact that in the past year Jackson County has gotten an officer assigned to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s regional task force and is close to finalizing a deal with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. His department has also partnered with numerous other local agencies to combat opioids.
“It’s going to take a combination of education, it’s going to take treatment and enforcement to try to slow this epidemic down,” he said. “It’s coming through Western North Carolina like a tidal wave, especially on the northern end of the county down toward the tribal boundary.”
Hall would also like to improve recovery services for incarcerated addicts. Building an assembly area in the jail to hold educational offerings on opioid abuse and drug prevention will be an important step in the future, he said.
The jail saw two inmate suicides shortly after Hall’s election as sheriff in 2014 — one before his swearing-in and another a few months after — which investigation showed occurred when detention officers failed to make their rounds as specified by law. Afterward, Hall hired a fulltime jail captain to manage the detention center and contracted with a medical service that provides daily health services as well as mental health assessments.
Farmer: Farmer is “not a fan of long, drawn-out campaigns” across state lines to bring down traffickers when they mean “letting drug dealers continue to deal with the poison they sell on our streets to our children” at home.
If elected, he’d want to aggressively police dealers, get tougher sentences for offenders, collaborate with other agencies and proactively serve search warrants to build cases against suspected dealers. Cracking down on dealers can also help encourage addicts to get help, he said.
“We’ve got to be that barrier between that dealer and the people and try to put a voice there to where they’ll seek help and not be going to the dealer,” he said. “As a sheriff in Jackson County I would like it to be where the dealers are afraid to even come into Jackson County because they know they’ll end up in prison if they come here.”
Do you believe the current patrol system is working?
The issue: Jackson is a rural county that contains only two local police forces aside from the sheriff’s office — the Western Carolina University and Sylva police departments — meaning that most law enforcement actions stem from the sheriff. Currently, the department works on shifts of five deputies, with four covering northern Jackson County and one covering the remote Cashiers area. With officers using sick, vacation and comp time, most shifts end up with four officers rather than five.
Farmer: In Farmer’s view, leaving Cashiers to the coverage of a single deputy is dangerous and counterproductive. With no nearby agencies available as backup, support is more than a 20-minute drive away. Making a simple arrest could mean that the area goes hours without any coverage at all as the deputy transports the subject to Sylva for booking.
“One officer up there, that’s a grave security risk for them if they’re going up and dealing with multiple subjects at once,” he said.
If elected, he’d want to see the sheriff’s office go to six-man shifts, with two officers covering the Cashiers area and four covering the rest of the county. He would also like to see the county come to an agreement with Cashiers-based Blue Ridge Public Safety so that guards from that company could provide backup in an emergency.
Hall: In the past year, four senior law enforcement officers have retired from the department, and as a result Hall has developed a “priority-based” restructuring plan that will allow more flexibility in covering areas of the county in need of more policing.
“I hope with the restructuring I can implement them (new hires) in where it will have an increased presence in southern Jackson County,” Hall said. “I won’t say they’ll be two or three all the time but the majority of the call volume there is high priority. It could be as many as three or four with this restructure.”
Hall declined to give specific details on his plan until after the election but said it would allow multiple deputies to be stationed in Cashiers at times when that was deemed necessary. He said that he would be willing to “possibly look” at partnering with private security in Cashiers on some activities but that it would be “on a limited basis.”
What would you do to improve school safety?
The issue: School shootings have increased in frequency over recent decades, leading schools across the nation to take a range of security measures. In the wake of the February shooting in Parkland, Florida, county commissioners hired additional school resource officers and allocated funds for security camera equipment and capital changes to improve security.
Hall: Hall counts putting a school resource officer in every Jackson County Public School campus the “biggest accomplishment” of his past four years and said that his office is finalizing an agreement to get one at Charter Summit School in Cashiers, to be paid for through a grant from the Department of Public Instruction.
“I’m sure we’re always going to find weaknesses. I’m happy with the plan that’s in place right now because it’s great improvement, but we’re probably never going to be satisfied,” he said.
Farmer: Farmer said he “applauds” the decision to hire additional school resource officers and install new security equipment but wants to see a focus on training and communication with the public.
Farmer would like to see the entire sheriff’s department train in the school buildings and conduct active shooter drills. He’d also like to rethink how and when parents are informed of incidents, citing “slow”-moving information following bomb threats earlier this year.
“We need to look at that and see how we can get information out to the families as quick as possible so we can assure them that the situation’s being handled and their children’s safety is first and foremost on our mind,” he said.
Jackson County deputies have dash cams but not body cams. Would you support using body cams?
Farmer: Farmer currently works for the Sylva Police Department, which does use body cameras. When he was first required to use dash and body cams, Farmer said, he thought they would be bad news but discovered that they’re instead “a lifeline.”
Video evidence can make frivolous complaints against police go away, and reviewing it can turn up evidence officers might not catch in the heat of the moment, such as stolen goods visible in the background of an image taken in someone’s house. Farmer said he’d like to see Jackson County get body cams, but also knows they’re not infallible.
“I understand video is great and everything, but that officer’s testimony is something that should carry a lot of weight as well, not just the video,” he said. “The officer’s testimony should still carry the same weight it did years ago.”
Hall: Hall said that he’s “very open” to getting body cams in the sheriff’s department but said that the problem is funding. About 12 years ago, the department acquired grant funding for dash cams but never secured recurring funding to replace old equipment.
“We’re not able to meet our policy (for dash cam use) just due to the lack of recurring funding,” he said. “If we could get a good sound financial support in place through a grant funding program, I’d be all for it.”
Originally, the department had 16 dash cams and is now working to replace them incrementally through local funds. About 11 have been replaced to date.
Doug Farmer (R)
Farmer, 54, is a Jackson County native who has worked in law enforcement for 20 years, ever since taking a job as a detention officer for the Macon County Sheriff’s Department in 1998.
Farmer worked his way up to a detective for Macon County, became a double-sworn officer with Macon County and the Highlands Police Department and then spent a year as an international police officer working with the military in Iraq in 2006. Upon his return, he returned to work in Macon County before taking a position in 2010 as a sergeant with the Sylva Police Department. He is currently a detective with that agency.
Farmer holds an advanced law enforcement certification. He is married with three children and lives in Dillsboro.
Chip Hall (D)
Hall, 51, is a Jackson County native and has worked in law enforcement for 30 years after receiving a law enforcement certificate from Southwestern Community College.
He began his career with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in 1988, working his way up to chief deputy and finally running for sheriff in 2014, winning amid a field of nine candidates. Hall was a longtime member of the Cullowhee Volunteer Fire Department, retiring in 2011 after 25 years.
Hall is married with two children who are students at Smoky Mountain High School and has been a member at Webster Baptist Church for 35 years.