Sheriff candidates tackle issues at debate

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Lincoln County’s candidates for sheriff had a chance to airtheir views on several pertinent questions Monday night at a debateat the State Room.

The debate, sponsored by Brookhaven Broadcasting, featuredquestions that were called in by listeners over the last few weeksand drawn at random from a bowl containing 10 possible topics.

Probably the most controversial question was that of dealingwith illegal immigrants in Lincoln County. Several candidatesvoiced opinions on not putting off the responsibility on otheragencies, regardless of where the responsibility lies.

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“Don’t put it off on someone else. I don’t want to run them outof the United States, because I can’t. But we can do something inour county,” said B.W. Pitts, who did not state any specific ideasabout what exactly to do in the county.

Gene “Bub” Simmons, the only candidate with no law enforcementexperience but who has held numerous positions in the Army, hadstatistics from the National Crime Information Center. He said thecenter had 12,000 hits nationally on illegal immigrants last year,although the statistics were not broken down regarding Mississippior Lincoln County.

“The deaths last year attributed to these people parallel thedeaths in Iraq,” said Simmons. “And everyone’s upset about the war.Being in the military, I’m upset about the war, too.”

Terry Harper attributed parts of the community’s drug problemsto the immigrant population as well.

“If you were to check, two out of every 20 of these people areprobably smoking marijuana,” he said. “You have to treat them as acitizen. Don’t overlook that they’re Hispanic.”

Robert Berry said the point is to protect the citizens, whetherit means against illegal immigrants or other threats.

“My number one priority is to protect and serve the citizens ofLincoln County by whatever means necessary,” he said. “As sheriff,that’s exactly what I’ll do.”

Pitts and Berry are former deputies with the sheriff’sdepartment and Harper served as a jailer.

Incumbent Sheriff Steve Rushing and former Sheriff Lynn Boyteexplained to the crowd that dealing with immigrants depends on arelationship with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, aswell as other help from federal agencies. Enforcement ofimmigration laws is a federal matter and local authorities’ handsare tied in dealing with them until they actually commit acrime.

“I wish we had more help keeping them from getting here,” saidBoyte. “We have to work through federal guidelines, and if we havehelp on a national level, then our efforts will begin to payoff.”

Rushing agreed, saying that previous statements by radio talkshows that he believed there wasn’t a problem with illegalimmigrants were taken out of context.

“Certainly we do have problems wilth illegal immigrants,especially the problems you run into getting federal help,” hesaid, explaining the jurisdictional boundaries. “With illegalimmigrants, it is a federal offense. And with federal violations,you have to deal through the federal offices.”

Another important issue raised by the panel was that of keepingup with changes in technology and taking measures to make sure thesheriff’s department is up to date.

The candidates each had their own ideas about the definition of”technology.”

Simmons said he felt tasers would greatly help the sheriff’sdepartment.

“Tasers are high technology, and really that just touches therim of technology,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go, and we’vegot to keep an open mind, look at the big picture, take the bridleoff, and we’ve gotta roll. We have to be willing to change.”

Harper touted the need for cameras in patrol cars, and alsotalked about the need for radar in the county.

“Save a life,” he said. “This would keep an officer out oftrouble or back him up if he gets in trouble. A camera is going tobe your most successful tool besides your intuition.”

Berry admitted an interest in researching further into therequirements for running radar.

“I need to do more research on what it takes to run radar in thecounty, because I think you have to have a certain number ofcitizens,” he said. “I don’t know what the steps are, but I knowthere are other things we can do about speeders that we learned inthe academy.”

Boyte spoke of the fingerprint system in the jail, and said it’simportant for a sheriff to stay abreast of the latest changes intechnology as well as training.

“When you stop training, you start losing ground,” he said. “Youneed to continually upgrade the training of your officers.”

Pitts took a unique stance on the question, pointing out thatmany criminals are attacking the home through cyberspace.

“Criminals are coming into our homes through our kids,” he said.”Computers are high-powered weapons and they’ve got us completelyunder attack. We have to stay with technology on cyber crime.”

Rushing spoke to the need for technology, as well as theupgrades he has made in office. He pointed out the 911 system andthe computers planned to be installed in the departmentvehicles.

“Our E-911 system is being upgraded so we can get a betterlocation on calls coming in from cell phones,” he said. “And we’reputting laptop computers in the cars to save the officers timerunning tags and taking calls. And we do this all with grant moneyso it’s no cost to the people of our county.”

The panel also asked the candidates about how they plan to keepthe jail certified, which is an issue as it fell out ofcertification during the previous administration. Rushing worked toget the certification back in his first few weeks in office, andthe other candidates spoke of the tremendous responsibility a jailis to the sheriff. All the candidates agreed that security andintegrity in the jail are a top priority for whoever becomes thenext sheriff of Lincoln County.

Other questions hinged on how the department interacts withother law enforcement agencies, how the candidates plan to keepcrime low in Lincoln County, and plans for the DARE program.