Forsyth sheriff candidates find little common ground

by Keith Barber

Forsyth County Sheriff Bill Schatzman (left) speaks to a gathering of the Forsyth County Republican Party Monday as Republican challenger Dave Griffith holds up a crime statistics document. Schatzman says violent crimes and property crimes in Forsyth County have decreased by 30 percent since 2003, but Griffith contends crime dramatically increased during that period. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

After 60 minutes of heated rhetoric, Forsyth County Sheriff Bill Schatzman asked his Republican challenger, Dave Griffith, what he would do differently if elected in November. The exchange came during a meeting of the Forsyth County Republican Party in Winston-Salem on Monday after an audience member asked Schatzman and Griffith if they support immigration laws like SB 1070, the legislation signed into law last week by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.

The bill makes it a crime under state law to be in the country illegally. It gives police officers the right to ask people about their immigration status if they suspect them of being undocumented. President Obama has called the bill “misguided” and expressed concern that the new law could violate people’s civil rights.

Schatzman responded to the question first. “We would enforce any law — that’s our mandate, that’s our mission — to enforce the laws of North Carolina and the United States,” he said. “That’s what law enforcement officers do; to do otherwise is anarchy.”

When pressed on whether he would support a law like SB 1070, Schatzman replied: “That is profiling what they have done in my opinion.”

Griffith responded by saying he would do everything legally to protect the citizens of Forsyth County.

“I will use every tool that is available to me to attack the problems of gangs, drugs and illegal immigration — that is my promise to you,” Griffith said.

“Tell the folks how you would do that differently than what I’m doing,” Schatzman interjected.

“I would give the officers clear direction as to how I want them to enforce the law,” Griffith replied.

“What will that direction be?” Schatzman asked. “The direction will be, I will un-encumber the deputies in Forsyth County,” Griffith said. “I will give them real leadership. I will be out there with them. I will inspire them.”

A lack of leadership in the sheriff’s office has been a central them of Griffith’s campaign.

“The incumbent has stated that he wants to take the sheriff’s office in a different direction,” Griffith said. “Well, I submit to you that he certainly has, but it’s not a direction this county needs to go in. When elected, I intend to take a sharp right and move away from catering to special interest groups and away from the dangerous, liberal agenda that this administration has taken.”

The tone of the dialogue was acrimonious from the start, and at the meeting’s end, the incumbent and the challenger declined to shake hands. It could be a case of familiarity breeding contempt. Griffith served as Schatzman’s chief deputy from 2002 to 2006.

“At the end of those four years, neither of us was interested in continuing our relationship,” Griffith said last week. “I saw the sheriff’s office going in a direction I didn’t approve of. Now it is my intention to take the sheriff’s office to the next level of professionalism.”

On Monday, Griffith said if elected, he would focus his efforts on working closely with community leaders to address the county’s public safety issues.

The candidates couldn’t even agree on crime statistics during the meeting.

Schatzman claimed that Part I crimes, which include violent crimes and property crimes, dropped 30 percent from 2003 to 2009. Griffith disagreed, stating that violent crimes surged more than 65 percent during that same time period.

Statistics provided by the State Bureau of Investigation, or SBI, contradict claims by both candidates. The SBI reports 21,351 Part I crimes in 2003 and 22,025 in 2008 — an increase of 7 percent throughout Forsyth County including Winston-Salem. The sheriff’s office website reports that Part I crimes rose 7.5 percent in areas of county excluding Winston-Salem and Kernersville from 2007 to 2008. Those figures appear to be roughly in line with the SBI statistics, but at variance with the claim made by the sheriff at Monday’s forum.

Griffith criticized Schatzman for ending the highway interdiction program, a sheriff’s office initiative to get drugs off the streets.

Schatzman said the program was a grant-funded initiative, and when the funding expired the county commissioners “decided not to go forward with the funding.”

Schatzman seized on the issue to laud his agency’s drug enforcement efforts, saying the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office has seized $2 million in drugs during the first quarter of this year, and its Drug Enforcement Agency forfeiture account and grant fund balance currently stands at $1.6 million.

“We want to spend that money on 21 new positions for the sheriff’s office,” Schatzman said. “We are able to pay for two thirds, almost three quarters of those new positions. That’s what we would do with that new money.”

Griffith also charged Schatzman with cronyism and nepotism, and said he would bring a different management style to the office. Schatzman defended the department’s hiring practices and touted the fact that his department is in the final stages of an accreditation process by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, or CALEA. Currently, the Winston-Salem and Greensboro police departments are the only law enforcement agencies in the Triad that have earned accreditation status. That status has a direct impact on whether or not the sheriff’s office receives federal funding, Schatzman said.

Griffith said he did not approve of the sheriff’s office gaining national accreditation, and was critical in general of the day-to-day operations of the department.

“I hear complaints daily of how the sheriff’s department is not doing their job, not serving civil complaints,” Griffith said. “I hear it about domestic violence issues, petty crimes, breaking and entering — how officers won’t call back. I’m not talking about the deputies; the deputies are doing the best they can under bad management.”

“This sheriff’s office is over-managed and under-led,” he continued. “I want to bring back real leadership to the sheriff’s office — leadership that is accountable, responsible and credible to the citizens of this county.”