Hobart Lewis and A.T. “Tommy” Smith, the two remaining Republican candidates for the office of Greenville County Sheriff, squared off this past Thursday evening in a debate held at the Global Trade Park on Fairforest Way.
Lewis was the lead vote-getter in last Tuesday's primary election, although he did not win a majority of votes in the five-man contest. Two of the five candidates, Darius Hall and Robert Whatley, have publicly endorsed Lewis in this Tuesday's runoff. The winner will face off against Democrat Paul Guy in March.
The panelists for the debate were Joey Hudson, host of The Morning Answer radio talk program, Deb Sofield, a commissioner for the Greenville Water System, moderator of the Republican First Monday club, and a speech coach, and Taggart Houck, a reporter for WYFF News 4.
150-200 people were in attendance. Each candidate had their unofficial cheering section, judging by the applause given throughout the evening after every answer.
“We need to do a better job of recruiting,” said Lewis, who focused in on the need to fill a 40-position vacancy in the department. He said that the money is available to meet that need and noted that county council has recently given deputies a raise but that what is needed further is a multi-year financial commitment by council so that deputies know what to expect.
Lewis also wants to improve morale in the agency and that, in addition to the need to recruiting more deputies, the agency needs to work on retaining deputies. He believes that once leadership is in place, any thoughts of leaving will dissipate. “Once we create a better environment they're going to want to stay,” he said.
Smith said that the workers are looking for a leader with a clear vision. He would restore a feeling that law enforcement is a calling. He also emphasized the need to keep up to date on training and attending conferences.
“You have to constantly hone your skills,” he said.
Smith said that the county needs 1.6 deputies per 1,000 residents, whereas the current ratio is only .9 per 1,000. He also wants more employees tending the call center in order to provide quicker phone response. Both agreed that there needs to be more a centralized communications among all emergency services in the county.
Sofield asked about restoring funds for bodycams. Both candidates agreed that these funds ought to be restored and that deputies on calls should be using them.
Some law enforcement agencies have been dilatory in releasing bodycam footage to the public. Both said that they would release such footage in a timely manner as soon as practicable.
While both candidates were in general agreement about many of the issues addressed, they did not see eye to eye on the need for a chief financial officer. Smith believes that such an officer is needed for an agency with a $50 million budget while Lewis does not believe a CFO is necessary.
When asked by Sofield how they would treat employees who have spoken out against their candidacies, both promised that they would not retaliate. Although Smith asserted that a top to bottom manpower review will be necessary, he promised that he would not carry out any political retribution.
Lewis agreed. “Nobody wants to fire employees over political statements they've made,” he said.
In light of resistance that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has faced from some jurisdictions nationwide, both men stated that they would cooperate fully with the federal agency.
Both agreed that more needs to be done in the area of deescalation and crisis intervention training. Smith said that he would explore the use of less-than-lethal weapons, such as bean bag shotguns.
Asked how the sheriff's office could be more proactive, Lewis said he wants the deputies to get out of their cars more and interact with the public, especially young people. “We need more community deputies,” he said.
Smith believes that the sheriff should be more proactive in the area of church security. His focus would be on setting up a liaison with houses of worship and in training church security teams, in light of a spate of church shootings in recent years.
The two were asked about dealing with drug cartels and gangs, seeing as how Greenville is located on a main drug-trafficking route, I-85. Lewis said that the agency already has the tech and the resources but is lacking the manpower. “Our narcotics division is a skeleton crew that it ever has been before,” he said.
Noting that Greenville has the unenviable HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) designation, Smith said that he would set up a multi-county task force to address the problem.
In closing remarks, Smith said that Greenville County deserves him as its next sheriff. “I think you deserve professional law enforcement. You deserve someone who's been around the block, because we've been through a lot here and we can't afford another bad choice or mistake.” he said. Smith has been in law enforcement for nearly 40 years, including several with the Secret Service. He pointed out that he was born and raised in Greenville. “This is my home,” he said.
Lewis said, “It is a very, very important election that will affect this community for a very long time. . . I'm not a politician. . . I'm a police officer, I'm a cop. I love this community.”