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Wise County GOP sheriff hopefuls trade barbs onstage

Mike Still • May 22, 2019 at 9:22 AM

WISE – The Republican hopefuls for Wise County Sheriff traded criticisms Tuesday before approximately 100 supporters just over a week before the party’s ‘firehouse’ primary to select between the three candidates.

County Assistant Sheriff Grant Kilgore – supported by retiring incumbent R.D. Oakes – shared the stage at Central High School’s auditorium with Coeburn Police Chief Scott Brooks and Pound police officer and former county commonwealth’s attorney Tim McAfee during the county GOP-hosted debate.

Moderated by Washington County, Va. Sheriff Fred Newman, the debate gave the candidates the chance for a three-minute opening statement, three-minute answers to eight questions and a three-minute closing statement.

McAfee, given the first opening statement said he helped shut down a cocaine epidemic in Wise County during his term as commonwealth’s attorney by helping form a regional drug task force in 1988 and prosecuting a Columbian drug trafficker. That experience, he said, is what is needed to deal with methamphetamine dealing and use in Wise County.

Brooks, given the second opening statement, cited his prior experience working for Oakes as a lieutenant and later as Coeburn’s police chief. He said the department needed to put more deputies out in the county to talk with people, listen to their concerns about people using or dealing drugs, and go talk with suspected drug criminals “to put them on notice.”

Kilgore focused on his 35 years in the department, advancing from deputy to Oakes’ second-in-command.

“I know the sheriff’s office better than any candidate in this race,” Kilgore said in his opening statement, pointing to developments in training and equipping deputies, increasing the number of school resource officers in the county, seeking grants to fund deputies’ equipment and community programs.

“After 35 years I still want to come to work and still want to be a part of it,” Kilgore said. “I still have something to offer.”

Kilgore stressed that theme throughout the debate, pointing to his work as a training officer and how the department has implemented neighborhood watches, senior citizens’ programs, school education programs.

When asked about leadership style, all three said they are hands-on in their approach to personnel.

McAfee questioned the sheriff’s department’s effectiveness in fighting the county’s drug problem. He said he would be “hands-on and visible” to the public and deputies while focusing on methamphetamine-related crime as the county’s underlying problem.

Brooks repeated several times his desire to focus on community-based policing and on getting more or the department’s existing deputy force “out on the street.”

“I’m going to be a positive motivator and they’re going to like working with me,” Brooks said.

Kilgore said his work as a department training officer demonstrated his commitment to working with officers and staff. Rebutting McAfee’s assessment of the sheriff’s department, Kilgore said at various times during the debate that deputies make frequent and several drug arrests while working with state police and federal law enforcement agencies.

McAfee questioned whether the federal Drug Enforcement Agency gives significant assistance to county law enforcement, saying that the agency has a minimal presence in Roanoke and has made “zero” drug arrests in Wise County. Kilgore later replied that the sheriff’s department cooperates in DEA investigations and that the DEA has offices in Abingdon and Bristol.

Brooks, citing his experience as a police chief, said an increased deputies’ presence along with confidential informants is “how you take drugs off the streets.” He called the sheriff’s department reactive instead of proactive in dealing with drug crime. Kilgore said that the sheriff’s department has a broader set of responsibilities than do police departments.

McAfee said the sheriff’s department needs to “cut the head off the snake” when fighting drug crime.

“I’m the only one who can do that,” McAfee said.

Kilgore said that training and self-examination through departmental accreditation is important to improving the sheriff’s department’s performance. He also said the county’s drug crime problem is a regional and a national problem that requires regional and national cooperation.

“Without investing in your people, you’re pretty much spinning your wheels,” Kilgore said. “You’re not doing what you can for the citizens of the county, providing a great quality of service for them.”

When each candidate was asked bout engaging with the public, McAfee said there are some people who “never have a good word to say about” law enforcement.

“So, for those people, I’m probably not going to deal with you,” McAfee said.

Brooks and Kilgore each said that public engagement is important to build trust.

Brooks later said he would advocate having officials work for laws allowing deputies to go into schools and do searches of students. McAfee followed up, saying that searches are illegal and unconstitutional without reasonable cause and, even if they were legal, would raise parental opposition.

In closing statements, the candidates followed their positions earlier in the debate.

“I want to continue what we’re doing and get better at it,” Kilgore said. “If you’re not in it, maybe you don’t know all the details about it.”

“It’s an extreme situation and it takes extreme measures,” Brooks said to McAfee’s remarks on the student search issue. “There’s some options out there and we need to think outside the box.”

McAfee said he was not running against Oakes’ department.

“I want to be part of the solution as much as being part of the solution that cuts the head off the damned snake,” McAfee added.

The Wise County Republican Party will hold a ‘firehouse’ primary to nominate the sheriff candidate on Saturday, June 1 from 9 a.m. - 2 p.m. at the Norton Community Center next to Norton Elementary and Middle School. The winner will run against Democratic challenger and former Wise County deputy Jake Elkins in the November general election.

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