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Political Pulse: Hall sheriffs debate had wide variety of topics
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Candidates discuss deputy fitness requirements

There was a lot I didn’t get to in a story earlier this week about the sheriff’s debate. Why? The debate lasted until a little after 9:30. We go to print at 11:30 and I had two other stories to write.

Luckily, I’ve got this weekly space where I can shove my leftovers. Just counting the number of people who showed up to Monday’s debate and the number of anonymous posters on Tuesday’s story, people seem, by far, more interested in this local race than any of the others we’re having in Hall County. So without further ado, I shall commence the shoving:

The candidates had an interesting discussion about immigration enforcement as they answered a question from the panel of college students about whether each of the candidates supported Georgia’s relatively new anti-illegal-immigration law, House Bill 87.

Chuck Hewett said he was “not inclined to agree with it,” noting that the state law didn’t mandate officer training that would keep officers from blurring the line of discrimination. John Sisk stated a similar concern with the state law, but Hewett was the only one to specifically state an opposition to it. Jeff Strickland stated support for the law, but did say it needed an amendment that allowed for temporary immigrant labor.

Hewett said state lawmakers should have let the local-federal partnership 287(g) do its work with a few tweaks. All of the candidates praised that program, and only Couch offered a tweak.

Couch said 287(g) needs to be used with more discretion, and said one problem with the program was the fact that two illegal immigrants were arrested for fishing without a license.

But he wasn’t the only candidate to turn the question into a discussion about the 287(g) program, which is a partnership that several local agencies, including Hall, have with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Latino immigrant community came up again during a discussion about gangs. One of the suggestions Couch proffered was to increase outreach to the Hispanic community. He said that, of 64 neighborhood watch organizations in Hall, none had been created in any of the county’s majority Hispanic communities.

Officer morale came up more than once. Answering a question about holding officers more accountable for their actions, all of the candidates mentioned the need for equal and fair punishment for officers and its relationship with employee morale. The issue came up again when the panel of college students asked about problem areas in the department. In their answers, nearly all the candidates talked about employee morale.

Couch said he also thinks keeping sheriff’s deputies trained and up-to-date on crime trends is one of the agency’s main problems, but in an earlier question about equipment needs, Couch mentioned that officers should be the biggest focus. He said they are “living paycheck to paycheck” and those with experience are leaving due to a lack of support. “In the future, of course, we’ll need to look at equipment needs, but first and foremost the biggest thing we need to work on right now is maintaining a level of excellence in keeping good qualified officers in this community,” Couch said.

Jon P. Strickland said something similar, insinuating that training  and other investments in staff were connected to morale, which is also connected to service and the community’s trust in the sheriff’s office. “Check around,” he said. “We’ve got a morale problem. How do we get rid of that morale problem? By leading by example.”

Former chief deputy Jeff Strickland also mentioned the agency’s morale problem, which he said was caused by the election, mandatory furloughs and no employer contribution to retirement plans. He stated a commitment to end officer furloughs by the end of his first year as sheriff, and said he would work “very hard” in his first term to restore retirement contributions. Hewett, too, said one of the agency’s biggest problems for officers was that “we need to help them feed their families.”

Other notes from Monday:
— Hewett proposed getting rid of much of the agency’s administration, saying “I’ll have no one in between me and the people there.”

 — On the candidates’ list of needs for the sheriff’s office, nearly all said the county needs new patrol cars. But Jeff Strickland mentioned another problem area: the agency’s reluctance to move into the technology age.  “Law enforcement has always been the last to embrace technology and make improvements,” said Jeff Strickland. “We still have officers hand-writing reports. We have clerks (transcribing) those and putting them into the computer. We’ve got to get better at those type areas.”

— Jon P. Strickland proposed deputizing officers in the county’s municipal departments to deal with issues created by city “islands,” or properties surrounded by the county but inside the city limits that often cause confusion over jurisdiction. Deputized officers, he suggested, could serve warrants near their jurisdictions or help deal with issues just outside the city limits. “You wouldn’t have to have a deputy drive all the way from Gainesville down there to serve that warrant,” he said.

—Sisk, in the aforementioned discussion about gangs, said kids were being “beat in” to gangs in school bathrooms.

— A member of the crowd questioned the candidates on their views on deputy fitness requirements.

Ashley Fielding is the senior political reporter for The Times. Share your thoughts, news tips and questions with her:
— @GtimesPolitics