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Sheriff hopefuls debate safer schools, opioid crisis

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Tommy Wooten, (right) the Republican candidate for sheriff in Pasquotank County, responds to a question as Rick Trevena (left), the Democratic candidate for Camden County sheriff, listens during a candidates forum at the Pasquotank County Courthouse, Tuesday.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, October 19, 2018

Protecting schools, fighting theft, and continuing efforts against opioid abuse were among the issues the candidates for sheriff in Pasquotank and Camden counties took on during a forum Tuesday night in Elizabeth City.

The forum featured Pasquotank sheriff candidates Tommy Wooten, a Republican, and Eddie Graham, a Democrat, as well as Camden candidates Kevin Jones, a Republican, and Rick Trevena, a Democrat. The event was hosted by The Daily Advance, the Elizabeth City Area Chamber of Commerce, and the League of Women Voters of Northeastern North Carolina.

Following years of deadly school shootings across the nation, an audience member asked the four men how they'd train officers to protect schools.

“I think the first step in doing this is to work very closely with the board of education,” Wooten said, including to coordinate responses to incidents and to address any weaknesses in schools' security, such as lack of security cameras or installing reinforced entrances.

Wooten, a sergeant in the Pasquotank Sheriff’s Office, also said putting a school resource officer in every Elizabeth City-Pasquotank school “is my ultimate goal,” but added he believes the upfront cost of doing so would be $700,000, plus about $300,000 in recurring costs.

Wooten also called for training exercises for deputies every summer, adding deputies need to have mobile devices that will allow them to tap into schools' camera systems during emergencies.

Graham, a sergeant in the Elizabeth City Police Department, stressed the need for constant training, including not only deputies but school personnel and officers in surrounding law enforcement agencies. Those agencies might be called in for a major incident, he noted.

“I think just having training once a year won't do it,” Graham said. “I think you have to train throughout the year, and train your officers as well as educational staff. We need to be on one accord.”

Jones, a N.C. Highway Patrol trooper, recalled that officers' response to school shootings changed greatly after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. Previously, officers were trained to contain active shooter scenes and wait for a SWAT team to take out the shooter, he said, acknowledging that delay put more children at risk.

“That's unacceptable,” Jones said. “The way we've been training for the past 10 years, is that, when you get an active-shooter call, we go to the scene and immediately take the shooter out.”

Jones said he would use his contacts through the Highway Patrol to bring experts in for training, at little cost to Camden.

Trevena said that in addition to training, there needs to be school resource officers in every school to confront potential threats. He also stressed the importance of making sure officers know the layout of local schools.

Moderator Mark Maland asked the candidates what they would do about the top crime problem in their community, and asked if they considered that problem to be opioid abuse.

Graham said opioid abuse was a major problem in Pasquotank — though he didn't say whether it was the top problem — and said drug abuse contributes to other crimes, such as break-ins.

Graham called for educating and training officers and the community about the opioid problem, including educating children about the dangers of drug abuse starting at a younger age.

Wooten said that, “by numbers,” the biggest crime problem in Pasquotank is burglaries and larcenies. However, he said he believes opioid abuse is helping drive some of those thefts. He said he wants to acquire drug-sniffing dogs for the department and better train deputies in drug interdiction, noting U.S. Highway 17 is a corridor for drug transport.

The four sheriff candidates also fielded an audience question about the opioid problem: someone asked why the societal response to opioid abuse had been “medicalized,” but the response to crack cocaine had been “criminalized.” The question was not totally clear, but appeared to reference the harsh, long sentences for crack cocaine convictions, versus more focus on treatment and rehabilitation for opioid abuse.

Wooten conceded he didn't have the answer for the question, but would research it.

Graham responded, “I think the different drugs have targeted different people,” continuing opioids had affected a lot of young people.

Trevena commented “that question is way above us,” but he said the different origins of crack versus opioids was a factor. Opioids are often legally prescribed painkillers that find their way onto the streets, while crack is a “street drug” illegal from its creation, he said.

Jones simply responded that, as a patrolman, he enforces laws against drug abuse equally. If someone drives under the influence, they've committed a crime whether they took prescribed opioids or smoked crack, he said.

Editor’s note: Some of Jones' and Trevena's comments during Tuesday’s forum were reported in a story appearing in Wednesday's edition of The Daily Advance.

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