Four challengers battle political giant for sheriff

by Amy Kingsley

Of all the political contests heading into the May 2 primary, none carries as weighty or expensive a marquee issue as the race for Guilford County Sheriff, where debate has raged on proposed jail construction. Incumbent Sheriff BJ Barnes has championed building a large new facility, but its necessity has been questioned by many of his challengers.

The specter of that jail, with a potential price tag ranging anywhere from $55 to $100 million, has become a metaphor for Barnes’ 12-year reign, according to Bob Hinson, one of three Democrats running in the primary.

‘“Everything about Barnes is big,’” Hinson said.

The private investigator worked for the public defender’s office as an investigator and said better communication between law enforcement and the court system could move people out of jail faster.

But Hinson, like the other challengers, did not dispute the need for more detention space. He simply opposed the way the facility has been presented to taxpayers.

‘“It’s something he has used politically,’” Hinson said.

Barnes is a very powerful political figure in the Guilford County Republican Party, Hinson said, and he has used that to push unnecessary projects and budget expansions. He’s not the only candidate in the Democratic field that disapproves of Barnes’ political activity, which includes endorsing local politicians including embattled County Commissioner Dr. Trudy Wade. His list of endorsees includes Pres. George Bush, US Rep. Howard Coble and a handful of other county commissioners. Barnes received two criminal justice degrees from Guilford Technical Community College.

‘“He’ll tell you right quick that he’s a very powerful politician,’” James Zimmerman said. Zimmerman retired from the Sheriff’s Department two years ago after 31 years of service. His goal is to make the office accountable to the citizens, which he plans to do by implementing an open-door policy.

Barnes says he leaves his politics at the door when he enters the office where he vows to serve all citizens equally.

‘“In this county I happen to be a Republican,’” he says, ‘“but that doesn’t mean I treat Democrats any differently than Republicans.’”

He touts jail overcrowding as the biggest challenge facing the community as a whole and disputes that it is a political issue. Barnes estimated a two-and-a-half to three-year timeline for building a new facility. The Guilford County Board of Commissioners did not embrace his proposal for an additional one-cent sales tax on all items except food.

His political activities build connections he can use to get things done in Guilford County, Barnes said.

‘“I can pick up the phone and call the governor and get an answer,’” Barnes said. ‘“I can call the White House and get an answer. Is that too political or is that doing your job effectively?’”

‘“Instead it will go on the local taxpayers,’” he said. ‘“It will go on the people who own homes.’”

After 12 years in office, Barnes claims that crime has dropped 46 percent on his watch and that average response times decreased from 19 to nine minutes.

All the Democratic challengers said that increasing education about law enforcement is the best strategy for crime prevention. Hinson also lamented staff cuts at local mental health providers and said that treatment is much more cost effective than incarceration.

Democratic candidate Berkeley Blanks, who faced Barnes in the 2002 runoff, said the crime reduction had to do with the annexation of 36 miles of county land the sheriff used to patrol by High Point and Greensboro. Blanks served in the Marines and received a degree from Guilford College in Administrative Science in 1980.

‘“Land don’t commit crime, people commit crime,’” was Barnes’ response.

Barnes also faces a challenger in the Republican primary, Clancy Laizure, who recently retired from the Air Force after 29 years of military service. He chose to run against Barnes because he said he feels the incumbent has held office too long and has dabbled too much in local politics. Laizure also said the new jail is a waste of taxpayer money.

‘“There are alternatives to jail time for many people,’” he said. ‘“We should do more community services, more rehab and maybe look at ankle bracelets.’”

The sheriff basically fills a leadership position, Laizure said. He cited leadership commendations he received in the service as proof of his ability to fill the post, despite his lack of law enforcement experience.

Blanks stressed that his decision to run for sheriff was not motivated by personal feelings toward Barnes. He said he had decided to run years ago when he served as secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina Law Enforcement Officer’s Association.

Blanks currently serves as the director of security at the American Hebrew Academy, but he served as a police officer for 32 years, 28 of those as a sergeant with the Greensboro Police Department.

His proposals for increasing efficiency include combining specialized services like the dive team, forensics lab and SWAT team for the entire county. Currently, the High Point Police Department, Greensboro Police Department and Guilford County Sheriff’s Department all have their own teams.

‘“It’s the sheriff’s responsibility to bring everybody under the umbrella of his authority,’” Blanks said. ‘“We need to capture all the resources that we have and get everybody onboard for the community instead of self-serving projects.’”

Barnes had broached the possibility of combining police services into the sheriff’s office, but that proposal has not gained traction in Guilford County and its two major municipalities. Although Blanks would like to see some streamlining of services, he said such a move would not be possible here.

‘“It’s like the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force,’” he said. ‘“They all protect and serve us under basically a public service banner. But each one does things a little differently and thinks they do things a little bit better than the others.’”

After he had outlined his proposals if elected sheriff, Blanks raised several concerns about padding in Barnes’ resume. Barnes said the National Sheriff’s Association has nominated him as Sheriff of the Year.

According to an association spokesman, deputy sheriffs of prosecutors usually nominate sheriffs for the honor, and the organization receives 30-40 a year.

The two frontrunners from both parties will face off in November. Despite the result, the jail debate will likely continue.

‘“This isn’t BJ’s jail,’” Barnes said. ‘“We have a responsibility to the people of getting that to the point it needs to be.’”

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