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Sheriff candidates squabble about ethics and professionalism

by Amy Kingsley

Berkley Blanks, a candidate for Guilford County sheriff, described his race against incumbent BJ Barnes as a clear-cut choice between a professional lawman and a politician. What is altogether less clear is whether voters will be able to distinguish between the two underneath the heaps of mud being flung during the last weeks of the campaign.

Barnes and Blanks stick to the big issues – a new jail, Tasers in schools and crime rates – on billboards and yard signs, but in conversations they quickly digress into disparagement of the other’s character. Barnes, the four-term incumbent, is stressing a “stay-the-course” message in his official literature, which highlights, among other things, a 44 percent reduction in crime rates. Blanks has labeled himself “the Taxpayer’s [SIC] Sheriff,” a lawman who will be able to increase department efficiency and establish better relationships with community groups.

Barnes has lobbied the Guilford County Commission to build a new jail estimated to cost about $100 million to replace the overpopulated structures in Greensboro and High Point. The issue is one Blanks hopes to turn against his rival by declaring the current jail situation a result of Barnes’ inaction.

“He’s been running this jail for twelve years,” Blanks said. “He’s the one who’s allowed it to deteriorate.”

Blanks said his response to overcrowding would be to direct 100 percent of the jail welfare fund to substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling. Barnes said the need for a new jail is well established.

“The Kimme Report, that $184,000 report the county commissioned, says we need a new jail,” Barnes said. “The state says we need a new jail. Seems like almost everyone thinks we need a new jail.”

Blanks unveiled seven billboards during the first week in October, some of which carry a stark message advocating the removal of Tasers from the sheriff’s deputies who serve as school resource officers in Guilford County. Sheriff Barnes equipped his officers with Tasers earlier this year and the move prompted outcry from some members of the Guilford County School Board. Although he has positioned himself as opposed to Barnes on the Taser issue, Blanks has struggled against criticism that he is wishy-washy on the subject. He is now taking a harder stand against the electroshock weapons.

“I would remove the Tasers out of school resource officers weaponry until it was deemed necessary,” Blanks said.

Necessity would be defined by the community, not the sheriff, he said.

“The majority of families we talk to are more concerned about their child being safe in school,” Barnes said. “The majority of people know that we have good school resource officers that are not going to use a Taser unnecessarily.”

Barnes has touted his department’s 44 percent reduction in crime rates, a statistic Blanks attributes to annexation of county land by High Point and Greensboro and creative paperwork. Blanks said the sheriff did not report a March 22 escape from jail by William Alvin Hayes, an 18-year-old accused of armed robbery and murder. Barnes and detention supervisor Capt. Chuck Williamson described the incident as an improper release. Hayes was held on unsecured bond for some of his charges and a monetary bond for others. The officers on duty overlooked the monetary bond and let the inmate out on his own recognizance; the two deputies on duty were later disciplined, Williamson said, and the suspect quickly returned to custody.

“Thank goodness we haven’t had any escapes,” Williamson said. “If we did, you would certainly hear about it.”

Blanks isn’t the only candidate casting aspersions on his candidate’s conduct. Barnes mentioned an incident lately retold in the The Rhinocerous Times in which Blanks, then a corporal with the Greensboro Police Department, told Lt. James Hinson where to fix a car Hinson had damaged on patrol. Neither Hinson nor Blanks reported the incident to supervisors.

“It came out that he helped this Hinson hide some issues,” Barnes said. “That’s an ethical issue for me.”

Blanks countered by saying he was not disciplined for the incident, which was a nonreportable accident. Then he produced a letter Barnes sent to all holders of concealed carry permits in Guilford County that featured two pictures: Barnes posing with former National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston and Blanks with gun-control advocate and former Ronald Reagan press secretary James Brady. He said that the sheriff abused his office, which handles concealed carry permits for handguns, to obtain addresses for gun owners that are not public records.

Barnes said the addresses are public and available through the NC Department of Justice. That explanation doesn’t address Blanks other concern, that Barnes took the White House meeting with Brady and President George HW Bush out of context.

“James Brady is a man who took a bullet for Ronald Reagan,” Blanks said. “He is a national hero.”

Barnes said he sent the letter so that voters would know that he supported the right of law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons.

“Mr. Blanks has a concealed carry, but the voters want to know where he stands on it,” Barnes said. “He put [the photograph] on his photo gallery. Why would he do that unless he’s trying to get some political bump from it?”

Barnes has little to fear on the financial front; the incumbent had about $90,000 as of early July in his campaign account compared to Blanks’ $4,000. A couple of Barnes’ larger donations come from members of the Matthews family, who run a vending company out of Archdale. Their products include video gambling machines, which North Carolina legislators recently voted to phase out. Most of Blanks’ money comes from small, individual donations.

Voters still sitting on the sheriff fence will have the opportunity to size up the combative candidates on Oct. 18 at Temple Emanuel, Oct. 23 at Gate City Kiwanis and Oct. 25 at the Congressional United Church of Christ.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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