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County voters consider candidates: Challenger for sheriff promises better service

Who would provide better service as sheriff seemed to be the recurring theme during the candidate forum held last week at the International Storytelling Center.
During the April 1 event sponsored by the Johnson City Press, six queries from the Editorial Board and one submitted from a community member were posed to Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal and challenger Craig Ford, Town of Jonesborough operations manager and director of public safety.
Questions covered qualifications for the position; whether nepotism is a problem at the WCSO; investigations into inmate deaths during the last year; the number one crime problem in Washington County; whether there is a current lack of resources and the reasons why; if making pseudoephedrine a prescription drug would help with the methamphetamine problem; and an opinion on the traffic camera enforcement and its effectiveness in controlling speed.
In his opening remarks, Ford repeated a new sheriff is needed for Washington County. He criticized the department’s use of force and turning over cases to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations. “We have to do our own investigations,” he said. “Perhaps if you did, you may find a policy was violated or there was no policy (in place).”
Graybeal said the WCSO recently achieved national accreditation for the seventh time, a process during which every policy and procedure in the department’s operation is reviewed. “We have the best department in the world,” he said.
To indicate his competency for the role, Ford reviewed the public safety positions he has held since 1983, which include multiple stints for the town and the WCSO. “I have a very well-rounded resume, not just in law enforcement, but in all three branches of emergency service,” he said.
Graybeal said he has been honored and privileged to sit in every chair in the WCSO during his tenure, which began in 1980. “If it’s there, I’ve done it,” he said. “It’s an everyday battle, and I’m as proud of the sheriff’s office as much as myself.”
While Graybeal’s son serves with the WCSO, the sheriff said none of the employees in his office are supervised by a relative. Ford supervises his uncle, who is a member of the Town of Jonesborough staff, but says it does not violate the town policy because an uncle is not considered an immediate family member. Both candidates insist having family members as co-workers in no way affects their own responsibilities.
Ford also says he has never made any allegation of wrongdoing in the deaths of five inmates, which occurred during a 10-month period. “My criticism has been with the leadership and my opponent,” he clarified. “Law enforcement is one of the biggest liabilities the county has.”
The WCSO has been aboveboard on all of the deaths and conducted its own investigations into each, as well as those by the TBI, according to Graybeal. “That’s the reason we called in (District Attorney General) Tony Clark, that’s why we took ourselves to the grand jury,” he pointed out. Graybeal added he disagreed with bringing up the same issue repeatedly and dragging the families through painful experiences for political gain.
The county’s biggest crime problem and the methods for addressing it also were debated.
“You would probably hear it’s drugs, and it probably is,” Ford said. “But we don’t need undercover DEA agents trying to make buys in other counties.”
According to Ford, burglaries in the county have a 17 percent solve rate. “Most burglaries result from the desperation to steal so they can buy drugs. You can’t just concentrate on one (problem),” he said, adding the single focus leads to increased neighborhood property crimes.
Graybeal said the TBI indicates prescription drugs is the biggest problem. “We are a huge agency, and if our neighbors need help, we provide it,” he said.
In addition, Graybeal said community watch meetings are held regularly. “Most people in our department are local, and we work hard to make sure businesses, churches and residences are protected.”
According to Graybeal, the WCSO is able to maintain a good inventory of equipment by using drug money to pay for needed items, such as stocking the vehicles for the new school resource officers.
Ford said the sheriff’s budget has doubled in the last 11 years. “When you talk about drug money, I’d like to point out that when the school resource officers were first talked about, the cost was more than $1 million,” he said. “When there was blowback, they became cheaper.”
Ford strongly opposed making pseudoephedrine available only by prescription. “There are a lot of low-income people who can’t go to the doctor for a prescription for medicine they use all the time,” he said.
“Lawmakers tend to forget they’re there to take care of people like us.” Ford said it is very difficult to make meth from the new gel cap form of pseudoephedrine, and said banning the tablet might be an idea.
Graybeal said the Tennessee Sheriff’s Association did not want to see a prescription involved either. “But right now we have a good tracking system and a way to keep a limit on the amount,” he said. “As long as there is any way to get their hands on drugs, people will make meth.”
The final question came from an audience member and requested an opinion on whether placing cameras at red lights are an effective tool in controlling the speed of traffic.
While Graybeal said his office has no direct involvement with the cameras, he is not a fan of the structure. “I would want to see an officer standing beside the car to tell me what I did wrong,” he said.
Ford said the cameras have been a very effective tool in changing behavior. “It’s no different than getting a parking ticket,” he said. “There’s no interaction (with an officer) there either.” Ford said there is no question the cameras have made the town intersections safer.
In closing, Graybeal said he felt privileged to be the sheriff. “I want to continue to grow Washington County to make it a place to grow families,” he said.
Ford said he has been from one end of the county to the other and received complaints from residents on the services received from the WCSO. “I’m asking for a chance,” he said. “This man has had 11 years.”