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Wilke transforms HCSO’s vision

Sheriff Bill Wilke Sheriff Bill Wilke

It’s been a long road for Bill Wilke to become Haywood County’s sheriff, and now that he’s got the job, he’s made some changes. 


Wilke, a Republican, comes to office with a diverse background. While he has plenty of experience in law enforcement and rose to the rank of lieutenant with the Asheville Police Department, he also just recently retired from the Army Reserves as a colonel. Wilke had previously sought the office of sheriff but lost. This go-round, he soundly defeated Democrat Larry Bryson by pulling in about 61% of the vote.

The new sheriff said he wants to focus on community policing. Wilke recalled that early in his career with APD, he was a community resource officer in West Asheville. In this role, he got to engage people in the neighborhoods to foster a sense of trust while also learning concerns people had. He said that’s a philosophy he wants to continue to build upon with HCSO. 

“My leadership style hasn’t changed; it’s people-centric,” he said. “People have different definitions of leadership, but that’s a big one for me.”  

Wilke said another key tenet of his leadership style is to support his people and promote from within.

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“I think that’s what’s best for the organization,” he said. “As long as you empower them and give them the tools, they can do well.” 

“Making sure that they have the tools, the resources to do what they need to do is crucial,” he added. “And if they don’t work, fine. So that’s kind of a way of looking at it. As sheriff, my responsibility is setting the vision and the strategy for where we want to be in the immediate future, the near future and then the far future, and then build towards that vision.”

Like other new sheriffs around the region, Wilke changed around some personnel early on, including letting eight deputies go. He said it was a matter of making sure he started off with people who were on board with the direction he wanted to take the office. 

“It became immediately apparent who understood what our vision was and shared that vision,” he said. “I could see who had a willingness to get behind that, and they did, they picked it up, and they ran with it ... I see a real sense of commitment and passion from those people.”

Harkening back to his own philosophy, Wilke said he wants his deputies to be victim- centered and treat people well, no matter the situation.

“They’re doing that from what I see,” he said. “I see a real sense of commitment and passion for what they’re doing, and they understand how to treat people. In my view that’s important in public service. I mean anybody, from someone you arrest — maybe the worst criminal — to, you know, a family that’s grieving from a loss. Knowing how to treat people is the key to success.”

Wilke added that he felt it was important to identify people who were ready to take on larger leadership roles.

“You have to identify who has the leadership ability,” he said. “Even in the military you’d see that it wasn’t always about rank. Some are informal leaders who people can look to and go, ‘hey, that’s the guy, one of my team.’ Folks will always follow those people.” 

Like his predecessor, Greg Christopher, Wilke takes a faith-based approach to most aspects of his job. Having been a pastor the last several years, Wilke’s personal faith guides his philosophies and ultimately his decisions, including within his job. Christopher frequently discussed how his own faith-based approach to how he handled things in the jail, but Wilke has changed things up a bit. For example, he’s tightened rules around things like contact between an inmate and someone coming in to share the gospel — something as simple as a hug, Wilke said, can make a volunteer and inmate both feel good, but it also creates undue danger. 

“A lot of people like volunteering and doing certain things because of how it makes them feel without necessarily considering what it actually does for the other person,” Wilke said. “It’s not that their intent is wrong, it’s just sometimes we don’t really consider if what we’re doing is helping someone.” 

And that philosophy spills into Wilke’s take on the drug crisis facing the region.

“I’ll tell you from a faith perspective … addiction is not a drug problem; it’s a sin problem,” Wilke said. “If you don’t understand the nature of sin, it may just seem like you’re looking for things to make you feel better, but these things don’t fix your heart. In the Christian faith, you know that if you change your heart, the actions will follow.” 

It’s well known now that addiction fuels the majority of crime and that as more people have become addicted, the recidivism rate has risen tremendously. Wilke wants to see those numbers go down. While Christopher employed a couple of peer support specialists in the jail, Wilke went in a different direction, turning to his friend Bob Cummings, a pastor who is known for compassion but also tough love.

“Bob loves people,” Wilke said, “but he also understands accountability. We have to bring all these resources — life skills, recovery, housing, employment, financial support — together, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t enable people to use.”

Wilke said his office is going to help the county create a community advisory panel made up of “serious stakeholders” who can identify where leaders have fallen short in curbing the addiction crisis, although he didn’t yet have too many specific details.

One initiative Wilke has reinstated is the DARE program. While many millennials and Gen Xers may recall that the old iteration of the DARE program was relatively ineffective and even stoked some kids’ curiosity regarding drugs, Wilke said the new program takes a different approach.

“People all say the old program was kind of a joke,” Wilke said. “What they’ve integrated into this now are social skills for kids that may not have parents at home all the time or have the right guidance. It offers ways to get out of situations that make you feel uncomfortable. If someone’s offering you drugs, it basically gives you an excuse without losing face.”

Just a few weeks ago, the Haywood County Board of Commissioners passed a budget with a property tax increase to fund SROs at every school in the county. Wilke talked about the importance of SROs.

“SROs build relationships between the kids and the deputies,” he said. “When you have that trust relationship, you’re first going to become aware of issues students can have in the home. And they can see things like bullying or kids who are heading down a wrong path.”

Wilke noted that while he’s kept his leadership style steady, there’s still been plenty to learn on the job. But the one thing he believes is paramount is approaching problems with an open mind while also keeping sight of his own values and beliefs.

“You have to always keep your eyes and ears open, and you have to be aware of your own biases,” he said. “You have to listen to the folks that have been here for a while and understand what’s worked, because you don’t want to change what’s worked. You want to focus on your vision with the foundation of the things that have worked and still capitalize on what you can.”

A slate of new sheriffs

In North Carolina, the county sheriff is the locally elected leader with the most power and the most responsibility. Not only are they charged with keeping the jail secure, they’re responsible for all civil process, securing the courthouse, fiscal and personnel management, community engagement, government relations at all levels and, of course, the safety and well-being of the people they serve.

It’s a job where experience matters and having an established cohesive staff with a common understanding of a sheriff’s vision is paramount.

Last year, the majority of sheriffs elected in Western North Carolina were brand new to the job and faced not only the everyday challenges and stressors common to that role, but they also had to adjust to the sharp learning curve and decide just what kind of leaders they wanted to be.

In The Smoky Mountain News’ four-county coverage area, there are three sheriffs who have been on the job less than a year. While in many counties in the past, the job of sheriff has gone to a Democrat who beat a Republican in the General Election, this year each sheriff west of Buncombe County is a Republican, and each has a slightly different vision for their office.

SMN spoke with the three new sheriffs in our coverage area. Here’s what they had to say.

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