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Ready for Prime Time
Sheriff's forum covers variety of topics

COVINGTON - Five of the six candidates for sheriff participated in a forum Thursday night, fielding questions from the media about department staffing, response time to citizens, the war on drugs and making the sheriff's office accessible to the public and media.

Republicans Stacey Cotton, Chris Cowan and Bill Watterson and Democrats Ezell Brown and Gwen Hightower were all on hand at the event, held at Turner Lake Complex. Republican Marty Roberts did not attend. The forum will be aired on Charter Communications Channel 20 in the next few weeks, leading up to the July 15 primary.

Staffing shortage

How will you address the department's current staffing shortage?

Watterson said there are some areas in the department in which additional personnel would be beneficial. If elected, he said he would work hard to streamline resources to make sure employees are being used to the best benefit.

Though Watterson said he would support adding precincts, he pointed out, "Precincts are just buildings. We need deputies to respond to those calls."

Brown said he would evaluate whether the department needs a different coverage strategy or an adjustment of shifts.

He also said he would implement a program called Cop on the Dot, which would reveal high crime areas in the county, and assign more deputies to those areas. Precincts are not high on his agenda, he said, adding, "Buildings are not a safety feature."

Cotton said recruitment of high-quality staffing will be a top priority. However, with revenues on the decline, Cotton said the department will have to find ways to justify any new positions, adding that it will be important to work with county commissioners to that end. He said it also will be important to look at how to best use personnel. Part of that could be looking at traffic patterns to determine routes deputies can travel for more efficient response times, he said.

Hightower said she would establish a recruiting officer to fill positions, and pointed out the department already takes advantage of job fairs and training academies to find new hires. She said funding is available for more patrol officers.

Cowan said he would assess the skills of all employees and assign their duties accordingly "to maximize what's out there. I would start from the inside."

Access to information

How will you ensure information will be accessible to the public and the press?

Cowan said as long as the information is not protected by law, the sheriff's office has a responsibility to make it accessible to the press and the public. He said he would be open to meeting with individuals and holding public forums or meetings detailing the state of the department.

Hightower said she would continue to follow the same guidelines followed at the sheriff's office, would maintain an open door policy with the press and would provide open records as long as they do not contain private information on victims.

Cotton said he believes the public has a right to know any information as long as it would not hinder an ongoing investigation, pointing out that the department is funded by taxpayer dollars.

"The agency should be run transparent, and if it can be released, it should be," he said.

Brown said he will maintain an open-door policy, be accountable and encourage officers to become more friendly with the media.

Watterson said he is familiar with working with the press, as a former public information officer with the department, and said it's important the department keep the public apprised of "every case we have," unless releasing information could damage an ongoing investigation.

He added that the department maintains a Web site where the public can look up all county inmates and their charges.

Criminal rehabilitation

Can criminals be rehabilitated and how would you support those efforts?

"I believe rehabilitation is possible for those that want to be rehabilitated," Cotton said.

He said he would continue to support court-ordered programs requiring offenders to get their GEDs and attend literacy courses. He said he would look to community organizations that provide services and counseling and would support faith-based organizations coming into the detention facility.

Hightower said she would like to see substance abuse and domestic violence offenders referred to mental health for treatment and have representatives from Project ReNeWal, a shelter for abused women, provide domestic violence prevention training.

Brown said "education is the key" to rehabilitation. He said he would like to implement a program for domestic violence offenders, will support GED programs and would form a family violence team with the Sheriff's Office, the District Attorney's Office and others in law enforcement and the judicial system.

"We need to pool our resources and work together to save our community," he said.

Cowan said he had seen firsthand the benefit of inmates earning their GEDs, as a former administrator of the test with the DeKalb County Sheriff's Office. He said he would support implementation of the Men Stopping Violence program, which focuses on prevention of domestic violence. He also said he would support private and faith-based agencies providing substance abuse treatment.

Watterson said he would look at every way possible to get help for inmates dealing with addictions and anger management issues and would support them voluntarily attending any programs that provide that treatment.

Department response

What will you do to ensure timely responses to citizens and follow up on cases?

Watterson said the department needs a lot of work on follow-up with residents. He said there are 10 investigators in the Criminal Investigation Division, who are often bogged down with serious crimes such as murder and child molestation.

"Burglaries take a backseat. We need to work on that," he said. Hiring more investigators would be a priority, he said.

Cowan said he agrees more manpower is needed. He said investigators need to keep in contact with victims and let them know the status of their case. "Everyone that's a victim is important," he said. It's also important for the department to prioritize cases, he said. "Crimes against persons outweigh crimes against property," he said.

Brown, who is in charge of the sex offender registry, said he knows the importance of communicating with victims. His philosophy regarding that can be summed up in the acronym CPR - courtesy, professionalism and respect. He agreed prioritizing cases and more manpower is needed.

Cotton said he understands investigators are overworked but he has heard from citizens who say some calls are not being returned. Cotton said investigators must look at the "solvability factor" of a case. "If it can't be solved, we need to put it aside," he said, but added victims should still be contacted and notified of the status.

He said another option would be to have investigators specialize in either crimes against people or crimes against property.

Working with city police

How will you work with city police departments to combat crime in those areas?

Brown said he would make sure to have an open door policy with local police chiefs and keep an open dialogue with citizens in those communities.

Cotton said as police chief for the city of Covington for more than 10 years, he knows the issues facing the municipalities. He said residents of cities also pay county taxes but only get jail and court services. He said he would make sure they get more "bang for their buck."

"City police can go out of business tomorrow. The sheriff's office can't," he said.

Cowan said he too will have an open door policy and have monthly meetings with police chiefs, and would look into deputizing city officers.

Hightower said current Sheriff Joe Nichols has already deputized officers with the Oxford, Porterdale and Covington police departments. She said she would commit to offering support to the municipalities and maintain an open door policy with police chiefs.

Watterson said he would hold regular meetings with chiefs of police, investigators and patrolmen in the municipalities.

"I think we should network, and we're not doing a good job of that," he said.

Watterson said it's important that the various departments are getting names of suspects and information about cases out to each other, especially since cases in the cites and county could be related.

Combatting drug crimes

With the East Metro Drug Enforcement Team disbanded, the Special Investigations Unit is now charged with investigating drug crimes. Is this enough to combat the drug problem, and what other resources are needed?

Watterson said drugs are one of biggest issues in the county and he would like to see efforts in fighting the problem increased. He said federal funding is needed to alleviate the cost for taxpayers. He also said he would encourage cooperation between the patrol divisions in the cities and the sheriff's department to fight the problem.

Hightower said she would be in favor of reinstituting a federally-funded program such as EMDET and targeting areas where drug activity is rampant.

Cowan agreed the drug unit needs to be expanded, but also said he would like to focus on educating citizens to spot drug activity. Cowan said the D.A.R.E program needs to be put back in high schools.

Cotton said EMDET was disbanded because there was no more federal funding available.

"Grants are meant to sunset so we can do this on our own," he said.

Cotton said the Special Investigations Unit was formed because he and Sheriff Joe Nichols knew "drugs must be fought right now." He agreed the unit should be expanded.

Brown said old tactics are not working and prevention and intervention is the key.

"Kicking in doors is never going to work," he said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.