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Candidates for sheriff spar at forum

South Boston News
John Tanner (seated at left) and Fred Clark at The Prizery forum, held Wednesday for the candidates for county constitutional office. (Liza Fulton photo) / November 04, 2019

Both candidates for Sheriff — incumbent Fred Clark and challenger John Tanner — laid out their priorities, talked about their law enforcements records and occasionally clashed over crime and policing issues at a countywide forum held Wednesday at The Prizery in South Boston.

Clark and Tanner drew the most interest among the candidates on the stage, representing the field for local constitutional office, Board of Supervisors tiebreaker and the Board of Supervisors seat in ED-8, held by William Bryant Claiborne. Those candidates and others spoke in front of the audience at The Prizery.

During the portion of the forum set aside for the hotly contested sheriff’s race, Clark touted his record over the past eight years, while Tanner vowed to take a more pro-active approach in areas where he claimed the department has come up short, including hiring, state certification and pursuit of outside grants.

“Public safety and safety of my officers is my number one priority,” said Clark. “The crime rate for Halifax County is down considerably from when I first took office. I attribute this to the men and women that wear the uniform daily.”

Clark also cited other advancements during his time in office, including close cooperation with adjoining police departments, improving the pay of county deputies, and opening satellite offices in the Nathalie and Virgilina areas.

Tanner took aim at the lack of accreditation for the Sheriff’s Office, saying he would make it a “top priority” to gain the state status if he wins the race. Tanner also rapped the loss of $50,000 in grant funding for a School Resource Officer, a position that has been paid for through the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. Tanner also said the Sheriff’s Office loses too many deputies to neighboring jurisdictions after spending upwards of $100,000 on training and equipment per officer.

“Absolutely, retention is an issue,” Tanner said, adding that “accreditation of the hiring and promotion process is a must.”

Responding to questions from forum moderator Nick Long, the two candidates offered their thoughts on a range of issues, from department budgeting to police misconduct and the spread of opioids and other drugs in the community. Here are some excerpts of what Clark and Tanner had to say:

» On how to provide law enforcement coverage across the large expanse of Halifax County.

Clark: “We are doing a good job with the resources we have. We will continue to be pro-active and continue community policing. The deputies will be active in the community on a regular basis. The county has two satellite offices, Virgilina and North Halifax, to better serve the citizens. Plans to open more offices in other parts of the county are being researched.”

Clark added that deputies are out patrolling the county at night, checking on businesses, schools, churches, homes and other locations in an ongoing effort to deter crime. Clark further noted that during his tenure, the Board of Supervisors has approved funding to hire two more deputies for patrol work.

Speaking on the same topic, Tanner said the challenge for the Sheriff’s Office is to “work smarter with what we have and improve our staffing as quickly as possible.” He said the department must do a better job of modernizing its equipment, which “will allow the deputies to stay in the field longer, respond faster, and clear calls quicker.

“Additionally, other funding sources must be found,” said Tanner, explaining that he wants to hire three new deputies for the HCSO.

» Strengthening ties among law enforcement agencies, and overseeing a well-run office.

Clark said the sheriff’s department under his leadership “has a great working relationship with all local and state law enforcement offices in the county as well as surrounding jurisdictions. Department heads have said it’s the best working relationship it’s ever been.

“We all know we can call on each other for assistance anytime that it’s needed. There is no ‘I’ in “team” and my motto is ‘working together to build a safer community.’ That’s exactly what we are doing and will continue to do so,” Clark said.

Clark also discussed the organization of his office into three divisions: patrol, investigative and civil process. Each division is headed by a lieutenant who reports up the chain of command to the captain, major and sheriff himself. “Officers are encouraged to be pro-active and patrol all areas of the county. It is an amazing system with three divisions working well, and we are always looking for room to improve,” he said.

During his eight-year leadership of the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office, Clark said the HCSO, with a budget of more than $3 million annually, has operated successfully under budget each year. “I always remain conscientious with your tax dollars,” he said.

On the topic of interagency cooperation, Tanner responded, “While the relationship [among agencies] is good, we can always do better. Communication is key. The sheriff’s office can host combined meetings with South Boston and Halifax law enforcement offices.” The Sheriff’s Office should do more to modernize its technology to “see what our partner agencies, within the county, are doing and assist as needed.

“The county sheriff is responsible for all crimes in the county. I will gear all my actions to that point every day,” Tanner said.

As a former officer with the military police — Tanner served with the Army and National Guard police for 18 years — and later as a civilian law enforcement officer for 26 years, Tanner said he gained ample experience running large departments.

“In the military I had the responsibility over 130 men and women. You learn quickly to prioritize duties, and the strong and weak points of your personnel,” he said. “There must be working knowledge of department needs, solid planning, and budgeting — a clear vision of what is needed and where you want the agency to go in the future. Funding sources and capital projects must be prioritized.”

» Treating all citizens equally, and warding off situations that could give rise to allegations of police misconduct.

Tanner: “This is a key point of my campaign. We must be as one with the law-abiding citizens we serve. Without their buy-in and cooperation the system will fail much as it is now. Citizens must have trust in the police to provide needed information and trust what the police say is truth.”

To strengthen communication with the public, Tanner said he will establish a “citizen action committee immediately across the entire county which will allow for two-way communication.” He also said the department accreditation will engender trust among citizens and “reduce the liability for the agency and the county government as a whole.”

On the same subject, Clark said “there is a good relationship with the community and community leaders,” and the Sheriff’s Office has an “open door policy that welcomes citizens’ feedback” on matters of public concern. “We get a lot of feedback from the public with the majority being positive,” he said.

“If an incident involving force occurs, it is reviewed by senior staff and citizen complaints are handled professionally and courteously. My office treats everyone equally and fairly,” he said.

Clark also noted a major change within the department in the past several years: equipping officers with body cameras and installing cameras in patrol vehicles. “The use of cameras has reduced citizen complaints of officer misconduct,” he said. Also, “these cameras have increased the quality of criminal prosecutions based on the recorded data of the incident.”

» Combating rising levels of opioid and drug addiction in Halifax County.

Observing that “law enforcement nationwide struggles to get ahead of the numbers crippling our communities,” Clark said it is important to continue educational outreach on the dangers of drug abuse, the physical signs that a person may be doing drugs, and resources that are available for people who need help with addiction.

Clark also praised the work of the Halifax County Drug Task Force, which consists of two investigators from the Sheriff’s Office, two from South Boston Police, and a special agent with the Virginia State Police.

“The Task Force has worked diligently identifying sources and has made numerous arrests. The Task Force works hard every day to combat the epidemic, said Clark. “We need to involve the community in those efforts. Working together we can make a difference in our community.”

For his part, Tanner said “there is a crisis in the entire county” that is “affecting everyone.” The scope of the problem makes it hard for businesses to hire reliable employees, he continued. Tanner said the Sheriff’s Office should be reorganized with a narcotic/violent crime section to “go after the heavy hitters” and “cut off the head of the snake.

“We currently concentrate too much on the street dealers and personal users versus the main supplier,” Tanner said, adding that the formation of a narcotics/violent crime section would result in stepped-up civil forfeiture of drug dealer assets. Such asset seizures, he added, can in turn be used to fund department operations, other than employee salaries.

» School safety.

“I have a soft spot for the properly trained School Resource Officer (SRO),” said Tanner, who noted that he has held the job during a time in his 44-year law enforcement career. “The Sheriff’s Office recently did not apply for, so [it] did not receive a state grant for $50,000,” Tanner continued. “They had received the grant for the past two years.”

Also, Tanner said the Sheriff’s Office needs to “practice school drills and training. Special equipment and building markings are a must.”

Clark described current efforts to protect school populations in the county: in tandem with South Boston Police, local departments provide two SROs at the high school and two at the middle school. The Sheriff’s Office also conducts random daily checks of county elementary schools to address safety concerns as they may arise.

“Safety of the students is very important to our office,” Clark said.

After the debate, Clark said the lapse in grant funding was due to a staffing change that involved the person who had submitted the grant application in prior years. He said the Sheriff’s Office has submitted the grant for the next school year.

» The importance of state accreditation of the Sheriff’s Office.

Clark said “we went down the road of accreditation several years back” but suggested the effort wasn’t worth it because of the sparse rewards that came back from the state. “Currently, there are 100 out of 417 agencies are accredited with the Virginia Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission.” In recent conversations with the Department of Criminal Justice Services, Clark said he has been told that incentives for accreditation are growing: “This process [application] will begin next month,” he said.

Clark also hailed recent technology improvements for the HCSO, which include new mobile data terminals in officers’ vehicles and modernized office equipment. He also said the training of officers has improved under his leadership.

Tanner retorted, “Accreditation is a top priority and should have been done years ago.” He said the department has almost certainly lost access to grant funds that would have been available if the HCSO had been state accredited all that time.

“We cannot continue to do business as usual without continuing to drain our resources,” Tanner said.

He also argued that the county’s recent approval of a digital emergency communications system, to replace the old analog network, “should have been started years ago to include CAD [computer added dispatch]” in patrol vehicles.

“The Sheriff’s Office should not have waited until the last minute before mandates changed to purchase required technology,” Tanner said.

» Hiring and retaining deputies.

Faced with a persistent problem of seeing deputies leave for higher paying positions, a situation made worse by the investments that the Sheriff’s Office puts in their training, Clark said that “it has been difficult to be competitive with salaries in neighboring jurisdictions.

“The retention of deputies and police officers is a struggle,” he conceded.

However, Clark said he has led the effort to win higher compensation for his employees from the Board of Supervisors, and “salaries are in better shape now than before this administration started.” He also said that even after they leave, some of his former deputies choose to come back.

Starting salaries for deputies and other members of the department are set by state government, leaving it up to localities to decide if they want to offer compensation above the state-mandated minimum pay.

Tanner said, “Absolutely, retention is an issue, look at the number of deputies who have left in the last few years after being trained cost us about $100,000 each.” While he offered no solutions for the funding of officer salaries, Tanner suggested other steps to make the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office a more desirable option for officers.

“Modernization will recruit younger and qualified people. An Explorer club in the schools and a positive image in the community all work toward this retention goal,” he said.

About the candidates, their backgrounds and experience:

» Clark described his 40-plus years of service in the community as a firefighter, jailer, deputy sheriff, magistrate and county sheriff for the past eight years. He also operated a country store in the Liberty community for eight years.

“Throughout all this time I have been fortunate to work with the public and deal with the people on many different levels,” he said. “I have always treated people equal and fair no matter the circumstances. I am a member of many organizations and civic groups. As sheriff I have continued to do the same and will continue to do so.”

» Tanner has 18 years’ experience in the Army and National Guard, serving as a military policeman, and he has spent 26 years in civilian law enforcement, including a stint as a deputy with the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office. His most recent law enforcement job was with the Amelia County Sheriff’s Office, where he served as patrol supervisor.

“In the military we are taught from day one to lead from the front,” Tanner said at the forum, which was also broadcast on WHLF. “You should have the ability and knowledge to perform all duties of those under your command. I can and have done that with ease. I have seen and learned the modern way law enforcement should operate and I embrace it.”

Tanner also said he has self-funded his campaign and promised, if elected, to give back 20 percent of his salary to the county to purchase equipment for the Sheriff’s Office or provide pay supplements to its five lowest-paid employees.

Voting in the race will be held tomorrow, Nov. 5, from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. at all county precincts.

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Clark is a nice guy but... the deputies don't do squat. Listen to the scanners and you hear almost nothing. They don't patrol the county and the cars become yard ornaments. Additionally, it is said that most crimes involving theft stats are not being reported to State Police. Then you have some deputies who don't know the code and cite b.s. when they do not understand the code. Now , Tanner seems a bit overbearing in that he wants to increase asset forfeiture, which is illegal without due process, and seems to be not a good balance where Clark is failing. Either way the county needs to get its officers properly accredited before they end up being sued for illegal arresta nd or other constitutional rights violations

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