By Bob Scott • Guest Columnist
A municipality would never think of electing a chief of police. But in North Carolina, sheriffs are elected like a high school popularity contest. When I tell people there are no qualifications required to run for sheriff, they are amazed.
Anyone can be elected sheriff without ever having completed first grade — although it’s not likely. A sheriff does not have to complete basic law enforcement training or have any law enforcement experience. This issue has surfaced again with the incident involving Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran.
Media reports say Cochran has had no law enforcement experience nor has he undergone basic law enforcement training. (The Smoky Mountain News, Jan. 21-26)
It is time for counties to do away with this archaic office bound by tradition and transfer the law enforcement function to professionals hired by and answerable to a commission or other oversight body. A county could still have an elected sheriff, who would be responsible for the jail, court security and civil process. The law enforcement function would be taken over by county police headed by an appointed chief. This would take partisan politics out of the law enforcement function, bring professionalism to the office, and establish accountability to the public.
Presently, the only control county commissioners have over a sheriff is his/her budget. Otherwise, the sheriff is not answerable to anyone for four years until he/she has to answer to the public at election time. Unfortunately, without any oversight, the public is often unaware of a sheriff’s effectiveness.
One argument to keep the office of sheriff is that it is the only office mentioned in the North Carolina Constitution. However, there is no mention in the constitution of the sheriff having law enforcement powers or protecting life and property.
Just for argument’s sake, here is a sampling of requirements some small towns are requiring in current advertisements for police chiefs:
• Archdale (Pop. 9,900) Bachelor’s degree. MA preferred in criminal justice related fields, advanced law enforcement certificate, high-level supervision experience.
• Mount Gilead (Pop. 1,389) Associate’s degree and minimum of three years experience.
• Erwin (Pop. 4,770) Must have thorough knowledge of law enforcement practices, procedures, requirements and working knowledge of administrative principles, finance, accounting and computers.
Another difference between a municipal police department and a sheriff’s office is that a sheriff may swear in a deputy. This allows that deputy to carry a badge and gun with powers of arrest for a year before attending Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET). Currently BLET is over 600 contact hours and is generally taught through the community college system. A municipality may not put a police officer on patrol with arrest powers until that officer has completed state mandated BLET. Other local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies do not give an officer power of arrest until they successfully complete required training.
It is a common practice across North Carolina for sheriffs to fire and/or demote deputies who do not actively support their election. So if a deputy disagrees with a sheriff, he can lose his job for political reasons. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld this draconian practice. What other law enforcement or governmental agency can be so unreasonable in dealing with employees without due process?
It is time for North Carolina counties to establish county police departments, or at the least give deputies some form of civil service job protection and a grievance procedure overseen by neutral and objective persons. Sheriffs should have to abide by the same personnel regulations as other law enforcement agencies.
Many deputies loyal to the criminal justice system have had their careers cut short because of politics. Loyalty to the sheriff is seen as more important than loyalty to the criminal justice system and the public. When sheriffs demote or fire well trained and experienced officers, the taxpayers lose as well as the officers.
Another problem with the office of sheriff is the cost of the political campaign. The public should be concerned that sheriffs, unlike police chiefs or other law enforcement officials, become obligated to campaign contributors. The sheriff’s race is often the most expensive local race.
It hasn’t been too many years ago that the law was changed to require district attorneys to be lawyers and most counties have now done away with elected coroners in favor of medical examiners. Several counties have opted for county police. So there is precedent for counties to consider a move to county police.