4 Dems vie for Pasquotank sheriff
By Reggie Ponder
Sunday, April 15, 2018
Given that the same person has been in charge of the Pasquotank Sheriff’s Office for nearly a quarter-century, it stands to reason the county’s next sheriff will bring some changes to the office.
The four Pasquotank Democrats vying for their party’s nomination in the May 8 primary to succeed Sheriff Randy Cartwright all have ideas about changes they would make if elected. Eddie Graham, Brent McKecuen, Tobie McPherson and Todd Wagner shared those ideas as well as responded to questions about several law enforcement topics during recent interviews.
Before the winner of their primary gets a chance to implement those plans, however, he’ll have to take on the winner of the Republican primary between Bill Ward and Tommy Wooten.
Graham, a 40-year-old patrol sergeant with the Elizabeth City Police Department, said the main thing he would do differently as sheriff would be to try and break down barriers between the sheriff's office and the community. He said he’d do this by "communicating with the citizens of Pasquotank County," adding that building trust and increasing transparency are paramount.
Graham said he also wants to start a mentoring program for youth.
McKecuen, a 46-year-old lieutenant with the Sheriff’s Office, said one thing he would do differently is improve communication between employees of the department’s civil, school, criminal and patrol divisions.
McKecuen, who heads the department’s criminal investigations and narcotics division, said he also would improve the school resource officer program and provide better training for employees.
McPherson, a 47-year-old deputy in the Sheriff’s Office, said he would provide more opportunities for deputy training if he’s elected. Most deputies find courses they want to pursue, McPherson said, but "there have been times when training was not approved." He added, "It's getting a little bit better now."
McPherson said he’d also like to “see more uniformity" in the department. He said he’s not belittling or disrespecting Cartwright, but he believes the department’s patrol division should be treated more equally.
"Patrol is the redheaded stepchild," McPherson said.
He also said he would put more emphasis on communication. Open dialogue is important both internally within the department and also in the community, he said.
Wagner, a 53-year-old sergeant with the Sheriff’s Office, said Cartwright has done a good job as sheriff. However, he believes deputies could work together more efficiently “to give better bang for our buck for citizens.”
"I would work to have our department in a team mode," Wagner said. "Right now we're in an 'I' mode."
Wagner, who oversees the department’s school resource officer program and is assigned as the SRO at River Road Middle School, also wants to see a school officer at all 13 schools in the district. While that might take more resources, Wagner said current resources could be redirected to provide SROs at more schools than there are now.
Wagner said school resource officers handle a number of duties, including investigating crimes, protecting children and serving as good role models for students.
Wagner also wants to ensure deputies receive constant opportunities for education and more training.
Asked about the school safety issue, McPherson said it’s mostly a state and federal issue. However, better training for school resource officers could help, he said.
"We may be be able to train our resource officers to be more observant," McPherson said.
Better communication with the public also can help prevent violent incidents at schools, he said.
"A lot of that is going to be community relations," McPherson said. "If the community does not trust us they are not going to give us information."
McKecuen said a school resource officer in every school would improve school safety. He said he would seek grant funding for additional SROs.
"I would also go in and do an assessment of the schools to determine where they are most vulnerable and the times they are most vulnerable," McKecuen said.
He also would consider using retired military and retired law enforcement as school security guards if the school district supported that, he said.
Graham said he would work to improve school safety by also trying to put more SROs in the schools.
"And the next thing is trying to get school resource officers that have a relationship with the students," Graham said. "I want the school resource officers to have more impact on the students. I think they're there but they don't have a relationship with the students."
SROs can conduct seminars for students, he said.
All four candidates also weighed in on what they believe to be the county’s biggest crime problem.
Graham said it’s probably the sale and use of illegal drugs.
"What I would do to solve it is educate people on drugs," Graham said. "I would also work on trying to get people assistance, trying to get people help to tackle the problems that they have."
McKecuen also listed illegal drugs as the largest crime problem, noting that “70 percent of all crimes in North Carolina are attributable to drugs in one way or another."
Narcotics officers are doing a good job but can do even better at detecting, deterring and interdicting drugs, McKeucen said. What’s needed is a stronger partnership with the Elizabeth City Police Department and sheriff’s offices in surrounding counties to fight the issue, he said.
"Crime doesn't know the county line," McKecuen said.
McPherson said that recently the biggest crime problem in the county were reports of breaking and entering. The key to reducing B&Es is to educate the public about break-in prevention, he said.
A lot of people leave their vehicles unlocked, a behavior that, if changed, could help prevent break-ins, McPherson said. He believes the sheriff's office could communicate better about the issue through the local newspaper, civic organizations and public forums.
Wagner also believes drug sales are a major crime problem, particularly the illegal sale of opioid medications. One tool in the fight against the opioid abuse is to strengthen drug-abuse prevention programs in the schools, he said.
The federal Drug Enforcement Agency has a program called Operation Prevention that could work well in late middle school or early high school, Wagner said. D.A.R.E. is tailored more to elementary students and could work for that age group, he said.
Treatment also is important, he said.
"For people who are trapped in this situation, who voluntarily come in and ask for help, we need to get them help to get into a detox," Wagner said. "Many of these people are not criminals."
Wagner noted a lot of people become addicted to opiods when they are prescribed for pain.
McPherson said both the state and federal governments are working on solutions to the opiod crisis.
"There is not a lot that I can do to fix that," McPherson said. "The state is working on it. It's something that we can work on, and try to get help for people, but we can't fix that problem alone."
McKecuen said an effective response to the opiod crisis requires a partnership that includes local police, the sheriff and the State Bureau of Investigation. Another need is a rehab facility in the area or close to the area, he said.
McKecuen said he would like to bring back the D.A.R.E. program while also bringing in a new program called "Keeping it Real" for students. He also said local first responders have been effective using the drug naloxone to revive people who’ve overdosed abusing opioids.
Asked what role the sheriff’s office should play in helping federal officials enforce immigration laws, McKecuen said the sheriff's office should enforce whatever laws are on the books.
McPherson said he, too, would enforce whatever the law is on immigration. "My personal opinion doesn't matter," he said.
Wagner said that throughout his career in law enforcement he has been told that if people are in the country illegally but have not committed a felony, they should be released. He said many immigrants help farmers with their harvest and do other important jobs.
"I would work with the federal government but it would not be my priority as a sheriff to go out and look for people who are here illegally," Wagner said.
Graham said he doesn't think the enforcement of immigration law should be a priority for the sheriff's office.
"The priority should be enforcement of state law and making it safe for Pasquotank County residents to live, work and play," he said.
All four candidates said the sheriff’s office’s communication with the public could be improved.
McPherson said better communication could rebuild the community's trust in law enforcement.
"Right now they don't trust us," he said.
The keys are being transparent, letting the public see what is going on and involving the public as much as possible, McPherson said.
McKecuen agreed that communication is important.
"I would definitely use our local media — television and newspapers," McKecuen said. "I would also use whatever social media services are available."
Reverse 911 also can be used to communicate emergency information to the public, he said.
The public's information is needed to solve crimes and prevent criminal activity, he said.
"They are the eyes and the ears for us," McKecuen said.
Wagner said communication with the public can be improved by having shift supervisors trained as public information officers, Wagner said. That would enable them to work more effectively with local media and social media, he said.
"I believe that by disseminating information to the public we can help to make our community safer and increase the transparency of our office," Wagner said. "It's 2018. The PIO (public information officer) is a current thing we need to grow to."
Graham said the sheriff should hold community meetings in different neighborhoods and get constant feedback from citizens.
The public and the sheriff's office together can develop plans to make the community safer, Graham said.
Occupation: Sergeant with Elizabeth City Police Department
Education: Graduate, Basic Law Enforcement Training, Martin Community College
Military service: None
Previous political campaigns: Served on Lewiston Town Council, 2003-15; ran unsuccessfully for Bertie County sheriff in 2006 and 2010
Civic, community affiliations: Member, St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church; board member, Girls Inc.; president, Leander Respass Chapter of North State Law Enforcement Officers Association
Occupation: Lieutenant with Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office
Education: Graduate, Basic Law Enforcement Training, Pitt Community College
Military service: None
Previous political campaigns: None
Civic, community affiliations: Member, Board of directors for Kids First; member, Albemarle Overdose and Prevention Coalition Team; member, Albemarle Conservation and Wildlife Chapter
Family: Married, two sons
Occupation: Deputy, Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office
Education: Associate degree in criminal justice, College of The Albemarle
Military service: U.S. Army, four years
Previous political campaigns: None
Civic, community affiliations: member, Masons, American Legion, Relay for Life
Family: Divorced, three children
Occupation: Sergeant with Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office
Education: Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, Elizabeth City State University
Military service: None
Previous political campaigns: Ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in 1994
Civic, community affiliations: member, Nixonton Volunteer Fire Department; member, Riverside United Methodist Church; member, Eureka Lodge #317
Family: Married; grown daughter